Brazil has denied the U.S. government’s extradition request for an accused Russian spy in Brazilian custody, weakening hopes that he could be used in a potential prisoner swap between the United States and Russia for either or both of two Americans being held in Russia on espionage charges that Washington considers bogus.
Brazil said it denied the U.S. request because it was still investigating the case and had already begun processing a Russian request for the extradition of the accused spy, Sergey Cherkasov, though it also appeared unlikely that Brazil would ultimately send him to Russia.
“At the moment, the citizen in question will remain in detention in Brazil,” Brazil’s justice minister, Flávio Dino, said on Twitter.
The United States has been seeking ways to free the two Americans being held in Russia. One is Evan Gershkovich, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who has been detained in Russia for four months. The other is Paul Whelan, who was detained in 2018 and is now serving a 16-year prison sentence. The United States considers both “wrongfully detained,” meaning the equivalent of political prisoners.
Brazil has held Mr. Cherkasov, 37, for more than a year on charges of using falsified documents. In March, the U.S. Justice Department formally accused him of spying in the United States, lodging charges that include acting as a foreign agent and visa fraud. The U.S. authorities have sought his extradition since.
Before those accusations, Russia had sought Mr. Cherkasov’s extradition from Brazil, saying that he was actually a criminal drug trafficker. Brazilian authorities preliminarily approved Russia’s request, pending Brazil’s broader investigation into accusations of espionage.
Mr. Dino, Brazil’s justice minister, said on Thursday that the decision to deny the U.S. request was based on international treaties and Brazilian law.
Mr. Cherkasov’s extradition to any country would require the approval of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has sought to keep Brazil neutral in the war in Ukraine.
Mr. Cherkasov lived in Brazil from 2012 to 2018, posing as a Brazilian named Victor Muller Ferreira, according to both the U.S. and Brazilian authorities. In 2018, he moved to the United States and attended Johns Hopkins University.
He then secured an internship at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which is investigating potential Russian war crimes in Ukraine. But when he arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport in April last year to begin the job, immigration authorities tipped off by Dutch intelligence sent him back to Brazil, where he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison on fraud charges.
Separately this week, a Brazilian court reduced Mr. Cherkasov’s prison sentence for fraud to five years, saying it was more appropriate based on his current conviction. He would face harsher consequences if convicted of espionage.
The U.S. Embassy in Brazil declined to comment on whether U.S. officials saw Mr. Cherkasov as a potential candidate to swap for either or both of the two Americans. If extradited to the United States, he would become perhaps the only accused Russian spy in U.S. custody. Analysts have seen him as a potential chip in such negotiations.