The Maldives

Long arm of the U.S.

Print edition : August 08, 2014

Roman Seleznev with his partner Anna Otisko and their daughter in this undated photograph taken in Sochi. Photo: AFP PHOTO / HO/COURTESY OF VALERY SELEZNYOV

Valery Seleznyov, State Duma member representing the Liberal Democratic Party and father of Roman Seleznev, and Roman's partner Anna Otisko address a press conference in Moscow on July 11. Photo: DMITRY SEREBRYAKOV/AFP

President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom. He described as baseless the claims of a U.S. Secret Service operation on Maldivian soil. Photo: V. Sudershan

U.S. Marshals openly violate Maldivian laws to “arrest” a Russian tourist in Male airport and fly him to Guam, where he is charged with hacking and credit card fraud.

“U.S. MARSHALS. YOU ARE UNDER ARREST,” screamed a well-built man even as two of his colleagues pounced on an unsuspecting Caucasian at the departure lounge of Male’s Ibrahim Nasir International Airport. One of the two men handcuffed the Caucasian, and the three dragged him to the tarmac even as his partner and their child looked on in mute horror, unable to comprehend what was going on. Two officers of the Maldivian Tourist Police stood around watching even as the United States Marshals bundled their captive into a private plane, which took off a few minutes later.

This is not a scene from a latest Hollywood thriller, but the narration of a real-life incident by a horrified passenger who witnessed it as it unfolded on the morning of July 5. His account was corroborated by the accounts of other sources, including a Maldivian news website, Haveeru. The aircraft, it turned out, was headed for Guam in the Pacific Ocean. The “arrested” person was a 30-year-old Russian computer engineer, Roman Valerevich Seleznev, from Vladivostok. His father, Valery Seleznyov, is a State Duma member representing the Liberal Democratic Party. Roman, his father told the media, was left brain-damaged after a 2011 bombing in Marrakesh, Morocco.

A few thousand miles away, on July 7, U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan, of the Western District, Washington, released a triumphalistic press statement. “Cyber crooks should take heed: you cannot hide behind distant keyboards. We will bring you to face justice,” she said. Durkan leads the Justice Department’s Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Enforcement Subcommittee of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee.

The press statement, titled “Russian Hacker Arrested for Computer Hacking Scheme that Victimised Thousands of Credit Card Holders”, said: “A Russian man indicted in the Western District of Washington for hacking into point-of-sale systems at retailers throughout the United States was arrested this weekend and transported to Guam for an initial appearance, announced U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan. Roman Valerevich Seleznev, 30, of Vladivostok, also known as ‘Track2’ in the criminal carding underground, was indicted in March 2011, for operating several carding forums that engaged in the distribution of stolen credit card information. At his first appearance in Guam today, Seleznev was ordered detained pending a further hearing scheduled for July 22, 2014.” The 27-page indictment filed on March 3, 2011, was unsealed on July 6, 2014, after Seleznev was produced in court.

The charges

Roman Seleznev was charged with hacking into retail point-of-sale systems and installing malicious software on the systems to steal credit card numbers in the period between October 2009 and February 2011. Seleznev, the indictment said, “created and operated infrastructure to facilitate the theft and sale of credit card data and used servers located all over the world to facilitate the operation”. This infrastructure included servers that hosted carding forum websites where cybercriminals gathered to sell stolen credit card numbers.

The charges, 29 in all, included five counts of bank fraud, eight counts of intentionally causing damage to a protected computer, eight counts of obtaining information from a protected computer, one count of possession of 15 or more unauthorised access devices (stolen credit card numbers), two counts of trafficking in unauthorised access devices and five counts of aggravated identity theft.

In a separate indictment in 2012 in the District of Nevada, Seleznev was charged with participating in a racketeer-influenced corrupt organisation (RICO) and conspiracy to engage in such an organisation and with two counts of possession of 15 or more counterfeit and unauthorised access devices.

Citing “law enforcement reasons” the Justice Department would not disclose the location of Seleznev’s arrest. Most of the Western media, including Reuters, carried a paraphrased version of the U.S. Attorney’s press release without mentioning that the Justice Department refused to the disclose the place of arrest. On July 11, Daily Mail (United Kingdom) said Seleznev was “allegedly seized by American secret service agents while returning to Moscow from a vacation in the Maldives before being bundled onto a plane and flown to Guam where he was arrested.... The man’s relatives insist that Seleznev was arrested because of a ‘horrendous mistake’ and was neither mentally nor physically able to engage in the intricate hacking schemes. The charges, however, date back to the time before he was injured.”

Holiday gone wrong

Seleznev had been holidaying in the Maldives with Anna and their daughter for a week at the high-end Atmosphere Kanifushi resort in Lhaviyani Atoll. Atmosphere is a new resort and it has, among other things, a vegetarian restaurant. The Maldives has a steady stream of tourists, mainly Russians with disposable incomes. In fact, Russia is one of the five countries that account for the largest number of tourists visiting the Maldives (January-May 2014, Maldives Tourism statistics): more than 30,000 Russians arrived in the islands within the first five months of 2014. Soon after Seleznev’s arrest, his father warned Russians against visiting the Maldives. “You see how unsafe it is there. One may be kidnapped in front of one’s wife and child,” he said when he addressed the media in Moscow on July 11 along with Anna Otisko, who emplaned for Moscow with her daughter soon after the incident.

It took the Maldivian government a few days to understand the impact of its actions. Once the reality hit the government, it went into denial mode. Intelligence officials and politicians who tracked the event agreed that there were no Interpol Red Notices against Seleznev when he arrived in the Maldives. The authorities later said an Interpol Red Notice was issued a day before his departure (on July 4), which was also the day the three agents who apprehended him arrived. Following this, the Maldives Police sought an arrest warrant against him from the Maldives Criminal Court on the night of July 4. The court denied the request, but the U.S. Marshals went ahead with the “arrest” the next day, as planned.

U.S. denial

On July 10, an unnamed official from the U.S. embassy in Colombo (which is concurrently accredited to the Maldives) told a Maldivian news website, Minivan News, that Maldives had acted under its own laws and expelled the Russian. A spokesperson with the U.S. embassy in Colombo said Seleznev had been detained by the Maldivian authorities “following the issuance of an Interpol Red Notice” in relation to indictments relating to bank and computer fraud that affected thousands of American citizens.

“This was a law enforcement action, and was based solely on law enforcement considerations. The indictment in this case was returned on March 2011, and thus long predates any current issues involving Russia and the United States. It has nothing to do with any of those issues. Nor was this a ‘kidnapping’ or in any way illegal, the U.S. embassy said,” Minivan News reported, quoting the unnamed U.S. official.

As a panicky government looked around for excuses, the Maldivian Attorney General stepped in and offered his view. According to media reports, the AG’s advice was that Immigration mark his travel documents as departed, and after that Roman Seleznev could be left at large in the airport to be apprehended by U.S. law enforcement agents.

The Maldives’ Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Foreign Affairs went with this justification and also claimed that Seleznev’s “expulsion” was in response to an Interpol Red Notice and that the government had followed due process. Haveeru Online reported this, but subsequently altered its web content and removed this portion, leading to questions from watchful politicians, including former Maldivian High Commissioner to the U.K. Farah Didi. “@haveeru owes its readers an explanation why it edited article on Russian #Seleznyov’s arrest,” she said in one tweet. Another read: “was Maldives oldest broadsheet @haveeru threatened to remove para about AG advice on #Seleznyov? No explanation given.”

It appears that the AG’s advice was unconstitutional. The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) accused the government of undermining the country’s Constitution “with blatant disregard for the individual rights of tourists”. “It is also a judicial requirement for security services, including the police, to procure a warrant from a Maldivian Court for such seize-and-arrest operations and for the suspect to be produced in the relevant court in the Maldives before repatriation,” the MDP’s international spokesperson Hamid Abdul Gafoor said. The party said the government overlooked all these procedures and projected the state as being powerless.

“It is also a matter of serious concern to the MDP that the government’s negligent and high-handed tactics are in complete disregard of the possible repercussions that may have adverse effects on trade and tourism,” Abdul Gafoor added.

Former Maldivian Foreign Minister Mohamed Nasim expressed his disapproval of the U.S. action and the meek Maldivian response when Frontline sought his views on the issue. “This is not good for the Maldives. Due process was not followed, and the Constitution was disrespected. We should not be dragged into the games of the big powers,” he said. “The government should have listened to the court. When a court declines to give an arrest warrant, why should the government go out of its way to commit contempt?” he asked.

Incredibly, President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom described as baseless the claims of a U.S. Secret Service operation on Maldivian soil. Speaking to the local press at the presidential residence, Muleeage, on July 10, he said the arrest had not been prompted by a request from the U.S.

Father’s version

“I am now in negotiations with the Russian Foreign Ministry. Kidnapping is a crime,” Roman Seleznev’s father, Valery Seleznyov, told ITAR-TASS on July 8. “The country must protect its citizens, and Roman should go back to Russia,” he said. The lawmaker expressed outrage at the fact that the U.S. “took the liberty to kidnap a person in the Maldives and without any body of evidence to bring him to the U.S. and arrest”.

“At present, it is the same for me whether Roman Seleznev is guilty or not. But if the American authorities had real evidence of his implication in the crime, they should have brought some charges through the Maldives’ court,” the MP stated. He emphasised the point that “no one had the right to take him anywhere without the sanction issued by the Maldives’ court”. “And here many questions arise relating to the law enforcement agencies of the Maldives,” Valery Seleznyov told ITAR-TASS. Calls from Frontline to his mobile phone went unanswered.

The miffed Russians took up the issue strongly with the Maldivian government, which led to the government sending a delegation to meet the Russian diplomats stationed in Colombo. The delegation apparently explained the government’s stand on the issue in the meeting, one informed official said. The Russians were not in a mood to listen, though. It was also pointed out that the Maldives and the U.S. did not have an extradition treaty.

In 2010, the Maldivian government, headed by Mohamed Nasheed, entered into an agreement with Nexbis, a Malaysia-based IT and software services company specialising in forensic-level security solutions, to install and operate a border control system. The very next year, the Anti-Corruption Commission, exceeding its brief, ordered the government to terminate the contract, claiming that the then Immigration Controller, Ilyas Hussain Ibrahim, and a Finance Ministry official had abused their authority for undue financial gain in the award of the MVR500 million (US$39 million) project to Nexbis.

In August 2013, Mohamed Waheed, who succeeded Nasheed as President, terminated the agreement citing losses. It was replaced with a Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System (PISCES), apparently gifted by the U.S. government.

In a statement in Washington State, Robert Kierstead, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Secret Service Seattle Field Office, said, “The Secret Service utilised state-of-the-art investigative techniques to dismantle this criminal network.” Part of the credit in this case should go to PISCES. With the system in place, the U.S. is able to monitor all in-bound and out-bound activity in the Maldives, a person familiar with the system confirmed to Frontline. Also, Interpol Red Notices do not show up in the U.S. system, an informed source said, and added that for this single reason the U.S. border control system should be junked.

Worry over Chinese tourists

Maldivians are worried about the impact this arrest may have over the tourism industry, the mainstay of the Maldivian economy. The Chinese form the largest chunk of tourists to the Maldives, and the “arrest” has received some traction in the Chinese media. If the number of Chinese tourists drops, many resorts will be hard hit because tourist arrivals from other countries cannot compensate for the shortfall, notes a tour operator.

Mohamed Nasim said that while there might not be any immediate impact, Chinese tourists could shift to another country if they are not convinced about safety. Russians, he feels, are a lost cause for now. “The Russians are high spenders. We were planning to open a mission in Moscow by the end of 2012 to attract even higher numbers and to build a better relationship. I had even met the Russian Foreign Minister in New York during the U.N. session,” Nasim said, and lamented that all the spade work had been negated by this episode.

Throughout the episode, there was no reaction from India or any of the other South Asian countries that make up the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). In fact, no country other than Russia even considered it fit to comment on the issue.

The closing lines of Martin Niemoeller’s poem, “First they came for the Socialists”, come to mind:

“Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”