The Enforcement Directorate (ED), probing a money laundering case against an international bitcoin hacker arrested from Bengaluru in November 2020, has informed the Karnataka High Court that it could not allow the accused hacker Srikrishna Ramesh’s brother to leave the country owing to the latter’s “non-cooperation” in the investigation.
The ED is investigating a money laundering case against Srikrishna, 26, who along with his associates has been booked for allegedly stealing Rs 11.5 crore from a Karnataka government’s e-procurement portal and for hacking into gaming sites and international crypto-currency exchanges.
His elder brother Sudarshan Ramesh, the 31-year-old Netherlands-based engineer, was prevented from leaving India in January this year, following his visit to his Bengaluru-based family, by immigration authorities on the basis of a ED’s lookout circular.
The criminal cases registered against Srikrishna triggered a political controversy as the principal Opposition Congress charged the BJP-ruled Karnataka government and the police with allegedly favouring the hacker after arresting him in a case of purchasing drugs on the Internet with bitcoins. He was subsequently linked to a series of hacking cases including the theft of Rs 11.5 crore from an e-procurement government portal. He was released on bail in as many as four cases by April 2021. The Congress has alleged the involvement of several persons in high positions in protecting his hacker gang.
The ED recently issued fresh summons to the hacker’s brother for an appearance on May 5. The agency informed the high court last month that it would make efforts to complete the probe and would inform the court by May 10 on whether Sudarshan could be allowed to travel back to the Netherlands.
On Tuesday, the ED counsel however told the court that it is not in a position to indicate if Sudarshan could be allowed to leave the country due to lack of his cooperation in its money laundering probe. The court posted the case on a later date for further hearing.
Sudharshan moved the high court after being stopped at the Bengaluru international airport from leaving for the Netherlands on January 13. He questioned the ED’s lookout circular despite “not being involved” in the hacking and money laundering case against his brother.
The ED is trying to track the trail of money that was allegedly stolen by Srikrishna and his associates from various locations by using his computer hacking skills. The agency has interrogated them in the case through the last year.
In his petition filed in the court against the Ministry of Home Affairs, Bureau of Immigration and ED, Sudharshan said that he has been questioned by the ED several times in connection with a case against his brother, in which, he added, he was not involved.
“It is submitted that one Srikrishna, who also happens to be the brother of the petitioner was allegedly involved in some scam. Pertinent to note that the petitioner has no prior information of such antecedent as he was not in India at the relevant point of time since his stay in the Netherlands for the last eight years,” his petition states, adding that by preventing him from travelling to the Netherlands the authorities have infringed on his right to life as guaranteed under Articles 19 and 21 of the Indian Constitution.
The ED’s probe has resulted in the seizure of Rs 1.43 crore so far. “During the money laundering investigations it is revealed that a hacker namely Srikrishna alias Sriki had hacked the portal of the Centre for E-Governance, Government of Karnataka, and funds to the tune of Rs 10.5 Crore and Rs 1.05 Crore were diverted to bank accounts of NGO, M/s. Uday Grama Vikash Sanstha, Nagpur, and a proprietorship, M/s. Nimmi Enterprises, Bulandshahar, Uttar Pradesh respectively,” the agency stated in August last year.
Srikrishna, who has a degree in computer science from the Netherlands, returned to India in 2017. In a “voluntary statement” made during his police custody, he admitted he was involved in the hacking of the Bitfinex exchange along with a hacking group he was associated with during his Netherlands days.
He has claimed in his statements given to the Bengaluru police that he had hacked into the British Virgin Islands-based Bitfinex crypto-currency exchange in 2015-16. The FBI and other US agencies have been probing the theft of 119,754 bitcoin (currently valued at $ 4.5 billion) from this exchange in 2016. They have reported the recovery of 94,636 of this stolen bitcoin as well as the arrest of two US nationals, Ilya Lichtenstein and his wife Heather Morgan, from New York in the case.