Netherlands says Russian spy caught seeking to infiltrate ICC

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Dutch authorities made a surprise announcement on Thursday that they had refused entry to a Russian spy posing as a Brazilian national to infiltrate the International Criminal Court.

Authorities speculated that the man was seeking to gain access to information relating to the ICC’s investigations into alleged Russian war crimes.

“He was sent back to Brazil on the first flight out,” the Netherlands’ counterespionage agency said of the events, which took place in April.

But social media accounts tied to the alleged Russian intelligence officer also suggest that they studied at top academic institutions in Europe and the United States – including Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, a key place of study for future foreign policy elites.

The FBI’s Washington Field Office said Thursday it could not confirm or deny whether there was an investigation into the individual. The first public details of the plot instead came from the Netherlands’ General Intelligence and Security Service, which is known by its Dutch acronym, AIVD.

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The agency released a statement Thursday laying out the extraordinary details of the case.

It got a 33-year-old purporting to be a Brazilian national named Viktor Muller Ferreira flew to the Netherlands from Brazil to start an internship at the ICC in The Hague – except the man’s real name was Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, and he was a 36 -year-old Russian intelligence officer, according to the agency.

Cherkasov, posing as Muller Ferreira, “used a well-constructed cover identity by which he concealed all his ties with Russia in general, and the GRU [Russia’s intelligence directorate] in particular, ”according to the AIVD, which released copies of a document detailing the man’s elaborate cover identity.

That four-page document, apparently written by the spy himself in a bid to memorize the details of his cover story, included long descriptions of a complicated family history and mundane details about rent in different cities, crushes on schoolteachers and a favorite trance music nightclub in Brasília.

The original document was written in Portuguese and included notable grammatical errors. Dutch authorities redacted some of it to remove information that could identify people not involved in Cherkasov’s intelligence activities.

“This was a long-term, multi-year GRU operation that cost a lot of time, energy and money,” Dutch intelligence agency chief Erik Akerboom told Reuters.

According to Cherkasov’s social media accounts, they studied both at Johns Hopkins and Trinity College Dublin.

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Representatives of Johns Hopkins did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But a 2020 commencement program from the university lists a “Victor Muller Ferreira” among its graduates. He was awarded a Master of Arts from the School of Advanced International Studies, according to the program.

Dutch authorities briefed the court on the operation, spokesperson Sonia Robla said in an emailed statement.

“The ICC takes these threats very seriously and will continue to work and cooperate with the Netherlands,” Robla said.

Cherkasov was set to start an internship at the ICC, where Dutch intelligence said they may have sought to gain access to information about ongoing investigations into allegations of Russian war crimes committed in Ukraine and in Georgia in 2008.

“If the intelligence officer had succeeded in gaining access as an intern to the ICC, they would have been able to gather intelligence there and look for (or recruit) sources, and arrange to have access to the ICC’s digital systems,” AIVD said. .

“He might also have been able to influence criminal proceedings of the ICC,” the agency said, adding that he was “considered potentially very high” risk to the security of the Netherlands and was sent back to Brazil at the earliest opportunity.

Russia has a fraught history with the court – Moscow signed the 1998 Rome Statute that established the ICC but never ratified it.

The ICC also launched investigations into Russia’s invasion of South Ossetia in Georgia in 2008 and later declared Russia an occupying force in Crimea after the 2014 invasion, prompting Moscow to withdraw its signature in protest.

Just days after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan announced that they would open an investigation into possible crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during the conflict.

The accusations against Cherkasov, who claimed to be a young student of human rights law and international affairs, caused shock and surprise among those who knew him. One person who said they knew the alleged spy from Dublin said he was still processing the news.

He added: “There were so many red flags.”

Eugene Finkel, an associate professor of international affairs at the university and an expert on genocide, wrote on Thursday on Twitter that he had taught the man he believed to be Muller Ferreira. He even wrote him a letter of recommendation for the internship at the ICC.

“Given my research focus it made sense. I wrote him a letter. A strong one, in fact. Yes, me. I wrote a reference letter for a GRU officer. I will never get over this fact, ”Finkel wrote.

Timsit reported from London and Taylor from Washington.