Russian Alexander Vinnik (C) is escorted by police officers as he arrives at a courthouse in Thessaloniki, Greece, on October 4, 2017. 
Photo: AFP / Sakis Mitrolidis
Russian Alexander Vinnik (C) is escorted by police officers as he arrives at a courthouse in Thessaloniki, Greece, on October 4, 2017. Photo: AFP / Sakis Mitrolidis

There’s been yet another twist in the bizarre saga of the now-defunct Mt Gox crypto-currency exchange.

Yesterday France joined the US and Russia in seeking the extradition of Alexander Vinnik, who is currently held in Greece and stands accused of multiple crimes such as international fraud, theft and allegedly laundering $4 billion via Bitcoin. He has also been accused of being responsible for the multi-million-dollar hack of the Mt Gox exchange in Tokyo in 2014.

A court in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki was told on Wednesday that a French warrant claims the Russian defrauded over 100 people in France between 2016 and 2018. France now wants Vinnik to stand trial there, according to AFP, on multiple extortion, money laundering and cyber-crime charges.

The 39-year-old Russian was arrested in the tourist resort of Halkidiki in July 2017 after being indicted by the US Justice Department on 21 charges ranging from identity theft, facilitating drug trafficking and money-laundered funds that he allegedly partly obtained by hacking Mt Gox.

This US indictment has been submitted as evidence in the ongoing embezzlement and data-manipulation trial in Japan of Mt Gox’s one-time CEO, Mark Karpelès. The 2013 hack was at the time the biggest Bitcoin theft in history. Mt Gox customers collectively lost 850,000 Bitcoins, then worth about $414 million. But US Justice Department evidence proves that the former Mt Gox boss is innocent, Karpelès’ Japanese legal team says.

The Mt Gox theft, that made the exchange the poster boy for Bitcoin’s “wild west” image, became a global story and it continues to deliver great headlines. Recently, Karpelès announced he had discovered some 200,000 Bitcoins that he originally thought were stolen in the hack. This discovery, however surprising or comical it may seem, allowed Japanese judges last week to rule that the bankruptcy trial against Mt Gox could instead become a “civil rehabilitation” proceeding. And this means the re-discovered Bitcoins can be issued to the hack victims.

When the exchange declared bankruptcy in 2014, the price of Bitcoin was a little less than $500. Now, Bitcoin is worth more than $6,000. So the missing $414 million has transformed into around $1.2 billion. While Quartz magazine has said “Mt. Gox customers are in line for an immense windfall” it’s not quite a done deal yet. Bitcoin has been falling sharply and the Tokyo court currently proposes to settle all of this in February 2019. If the doomsayers are right, it could be a big pile of nothing by then.

In Greece, meanwhile, Alexander Vinnik denies any wrongdoing, but says he will accept extradition to his native Russia, where is wanted on a separate set of fraud charges.

Vinnik founded the BTC-e crypto exchange in 2011. It became one of the world’s largest exchanges but, according to the US indictment, was “heavily reliant on criminals” and “was noted for its role in numerous ransomware and other cyber-criminal activity”. The US says Vinnik received more than 3.5 billion euros ($4 billion) worth of Bitcoin over the course of its operation.

In December Greece’s Supreme Court ruled that Vinnik should be extradited to the US but the final decision rests with the Greek justice minister.

How this latest development from Paris will change things remains to be seen. But for sure, this is not the end of the strange story that is Mt Gox.

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