Ultra-wealthy Russians used the services of an Israeli private investigator currently in US custody and an Indian hacking group to carry out surveillance operations, a reporter said in a New York court filing.
Independent journalist Scott Stedman told the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York that Aviram Azari, a jailed Israeli private investigator, worked on “surveillance and cyber-intelligence operations at the behest of Russian oligarchs”, citing public and confidential sources.
One of the oligarchs was aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, who indirectly employed Azari in connection with a business dispute in Austria, Stedman said in a filing.
A spokeswoman for Deripaska said in an email to Reuters the allegations were “blatantly untrue”.
Azari last month pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit hacking and aggravated identity theft in a separate case.
He was accused of hiring Indian firm BellTroX InfoTech Services to carry out hacks against a range of targets on behalf of large corporations. BellTrox has previously denied being involved in hacking.
Stedman submitted the filing in support of a request to subpoena Azari for evidence in a UK libel suit filed against him in 2020 by British-Israeli security consultant Walter Soriano.
Stedman claimed in articles in his publication, Forensic News, that Soriano was a middleman between Russian oligarchs and surveillance operators.
Soriano denied the claims and sued Stedman, claiming he was mounting a campaign of defamation, and accusing him of invasion of privacy and harassment.
Stedman said in the filing that “multiple confidential sources” told him Azari had “worked closely with Soriano for years” and that Azari’s testimony could “corroborate the truth of Forensic News’ reporting”.
Soriano’s lawyer Shlomo Rechtschaffen said in an email to Reuters the claims were “false and unfounded” and that Stedman “has no evidence” supporting his claim.
Stedman said in a statement he had “very strong reason to believe that Mr. Azari worked with Mr. Soriano on cyber-related projects for multiple Russian oligarchs and other billionaires” and was subpoenaing Azari in order to “defend my journalism and my business”.
Azari is currently being held in a federal prison in Brooklyn as he awaits sentencing in a case involving collapsed German financial technology company Wirecard, currently scheduled for 21 July.
Citizen Lab, a human rights group based at the University of Toronto, has accused BellTrox of being behind large-scale hacking campaigns that targeted lawyers, government officials, businessmen, investors and activists around the world on behalf of corporations such as Wirecard and ExxonMobil.
ExxonMobil has said it had “no knowledge of, or involvement in” the hacking activities.
Citizen Lab director Ron Deibert alleged in an interview with The Record earlier this month that Azari and BellTrox were part of a “dark labyrinth” used by corporations to target individuals.
“You may have a client like a big multinational company that then hires a law firm. The law firm hires a private investigator. The private investigator hires a hack-for-hire company and the hack-for-hire company in this case is based in India,” he said.
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