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Russian hacker wanted by U.S. tells court he worked for Putin's party

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian hacker arrested in Spain on a U.S. warrant said on Thursday he previously worked for President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party and feared he would be tortured and killed if extradited, RIA news agency reported.

Peter Levashov was arrested while on holiday in Barcelona in April. U.S. prosecutors later charged him with hacking offences, accusing him of operating a network of tens of thousands of infected computers used by cyber criminals.

Levashov’s comments offered a rare glimpse into the relationship between cyber criminals and the Russian state. U.S. officials say Russian authorities routinely shield hackers from prosecution abroad before recruiting them for espionage work.

Russian hackers have been under intense scrutiny since U.S. intelligence officials accused Moscow of interfering in last year’s U.S. presidential election. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied the allegations.

U.S. prosecutors are seeking a 52-year jail sentence and Levashov, who denies the charges against him, is fighting his extradition from Spain.

He told a court in Madrid on Thursday that he had worked for the United Russia party for the last 10 years.

“I collected different information about opposition parties and delivered it to the necessary people at the necessary time,” RIA quoted him as saying.

Levashov provided no further details about his work for the party, RIA reported, though said he was an officer in the Russian army with access to classified information.

It was unclear if Levashov was a serving officer or an army reservist having completed mandatory military service.

He also told the court investigators in the United States would torture him for information about his political work if he was sent there to face the charges against him.

“If I go to the U.S., I will die in a year. They want to get information of a military nature and about the United Russia party,” RIA quoted him as saying. “I will be tortured, within a year I will be killed, or I will kill myself.”

Levashov has long been seen by cyber security investigators to be the person behind an online persona known as Peter Severa. Severa spent years listed among the world’s 10 most prolific spammers, according to spam-tracking group Spamhaus.

U.S. prosecutors have accused Levashov of running the infamous Kelihos botnet, a network of more than 100,000 infected devices used by cyber criminals to distribute viruses, ransomware, phishing emails and other spam attacks.

Russia lodged its own request for Levashov’s extradition last week, RIA reported.

Editing by Mark Heinrich