Judge: Prosecutors filed weak charges to keep hacker in jail

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A federal judge has ordered the immediate release of a hacker who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for aiding Islamic State, and accused the Justice Department of framing him to keep him in jail. jail.

U.S. Judge Leonie Brinkema’s April 1 order includes a stern rebuke of Justice Department conduct against Ardit Ferizi. The Kosovo native is the first person convicted in the United States of both hacking and terrorism.

He pleaded guilty in 2016 and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He admitted to hacking into a private company and extracting the names, email passwords and phone numbers of approximately 1,300 people with .gov and .mil addresses and forwarding the data to the “State Hacking Division Islamic”. The Islamic State released the names with a threat of attack.

In 2020, in the early stages of the pandemic, Ferizi requested a compassionate release, citing his asthma and obesity as putting him at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.

Brinkema initially denied his request. But Ferizi renewed his request when an epidemic swept through his prison, and Brinkema granted him a compassionate release despite prosecutors’ objections.

Brinkema’s decision resulted in Ferizi being transferred to immigration authorities for deportation. Before he could be deported, however, federal prosecutors in California brought new charges against Ferizi. The criminal complaint accused him of identity theft and wire fraud by coordinating with a family member to preserve access to email accounts containing large amounts of stolen data.

Ferizi’s attorneys have called for the new charges to be dismissed, accusing the Justice Department of vindictive prosecution because officers were upset about Ferizi’s early release.

On March 22, just before a hearing was scheduled in California to consider the vindictive prosecution charge, the new charges against Ferizi were all dropped.

In his April 1 order, Brinkema said California prosecutors based their case on information from a fellow Ferizi inmate with a history of unreliability.

She wrote that the circumstances of the case led her to conclude that “there were elements within the Department of Justice who were so unhappy with the decision of this Court to release the defendant … that they deliberately tried to evade these decisions by filing very weak new charges. against the defendant. »

Prosecutors argued that now that the pandemic has subsided, the rationale for release on humanitarian grounds no longer exists.

Brinkema, however, said “it would set a terrible precedent if the decision to release a defendant was overturned on the basis of changed circumstances caused by government manipulation of the criminal justice system.”

Prosecutors, who appealed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond the first time Brinkema ordered Ferizi’s release, have not yet said whether they plan to appeal his latest order.

Ferizi was among a relatively small number of inmates who managed to secure early release from prison amid the pandemic. According to the US Sentencing Commission, more than 12,000 inmates filed requests for compassionate release in 2020 due to the pandemic. About 21% of those requests — just over 2,500 inmates — were granted.

A public defender representing Ferizi and a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia each declined to comment.

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