A friend of 22-year-old Karim Baratov is showing her support for the Canadian-Kazakh national at the centre of a U.S. investigation into a massive cyberattack against Yahoo in 2014, saying the young man she knew was kind, genuine and always there to lend a helping hand.
“Everyone’s focusing so much on the negative and that’s not the person that I know,” Victoria Searle, a receptionist at radio station CHML in Hamilton, told Global News.
“That’s not the Karim that I know. To me, Karim is a kindhearted person. He would take the shirt off his back for any of his friends.”
WATCH: Karim Baratov’s friend comes to his defence. Lama Nicolas reports. (March 16)
Baratov was one of four suspects arrested in connection with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and FBI-led investigation into the 2014 cyberattack, when more than half a billion user accounts were compromised.
The hack targeted the email accounts of Russian and U.S. officials, Russian journalists, and employees of financial services and other businesses, officials said.
Toronto police said Baratov was taken into custody without incident at his Ancaster, Ont. home just after 8 a.m. Tuesday at the request of U.S. authorities.
“He was so personable and he was very kind … he is the type of person that you’re just drawn to,” Searle said, adding she had known Baratov for close to two years.
“He’s just that nice friend that was always there for you, as a true friend should be.”
Searle said she was shocked to receive a phone call from her father Wednesday informing her of Baratov’s arrest.
“I was like, ‘I don’t believe this, this is kind of ridiculous. It must be somebody else.’ And I started to put the pieces together,” she said, adding she cared for Baratov “like a brother.”
“It was a big blur. Because when you don’t expect anything like that to ever come into your life — especially someone that you know so well.”
Several social media accounts belonging to Baratov showed him enjoying an extravagant lifestyle with numerous high-end luxury vehicles, but Searle said that didn’t raise any concerns for her.
“You have Instagram, Facebook, of course if you have nice things you’re going to want to share it, right? It’s the same as if I had nice things or if anybody else had nice things,” she said.
“But I didn’t really think anything was out of the ordinary — a lot of my friends do have nice things. So why not share it? If you worked for something, why not share it?”
Searle said she once asked Baratov what he did for a living and he said he did “something with computers.”
“I’m not going to pry just as I’m getting to know someone as a person,” she said, adding that the two became quite close as friends and planned to go skydiving this summer.
“He just liked to have fun. He’s your typical everyday guy that just wants to enjoy life and make the people around him feel happy and let them enjoy life as well.”
WATCH: Lawyer calls on public to ignore details of Baratov’s personal life
Searle said Baratov “kept to himself a lot of the time” and didn’t tell her or others his last name or anything about his family.
“To me that wasn’t really a big deal,” she said. “We really didn’t discuss that, it was just all about having a good time and hanging out as friends.”
Searle said the allegations that soon came out about Baratov left her in disbelief.
The DOJ said a grand jury in California indicted Baratov and three others — two of them allegedly officers of the Russian Federal Security Service — for computer hacking, economic espionage and other criminal offences. None of the charges have been proven in court.
“For those type of words to be connected to someone that you know so well — it’s just like one big blur,” she said.
“This isn’t the person that I know. It’s not who I know who he is on the inside.”
Toronto police said Baratov was handed over to the RCMP and will likely be extradited to the U.S., as he is named in the DOJ indictment.
RCMP spokesman Sgt. Harold Pfleiderer said the national police service assisted the FBI in its investigation, but could not provide further details.
Alleged Russian intelligence (FSB) agents Dmitry Aleksandrovich Dokuchaev, 33, and Igor Anatolyevich Sushchin, 43, also face charges.
Russian national and U.S. resident Alexsey Alexseyevich Belan, also known as “Magg,” 29, was also indicted.
Belan, who had previously been indicted in 2012 and 2013, was named one of FBI’s most wanted cybercriminals in November 2013 but escaped to Russia before he could be extradited from Europe, the department said.
U.S. officials said Baratov also went by the names Kay, Karim Taloverov and Karim Akehmet Tokbergenov.
Searle said she now wonders if Baratov led a secret life during the time she knew him, but insists he is innocent until proven guilty.
“Nothing has been said that this is confirmed … But a lot of people are putting that on him,” she said.
“It hurts a lot. I think that’s why his close true friends, like myself and other people that I know, have mentioned stuff online that is positive about him. Because we know him as a different person.”
Searle said Baratov is a “good person,” adding she believes he possibly could have gotten involved in criminal activity when he was “impressionable” at a young age.
“Maybe he got involved in something just out of the money, I don’t know,” she said.
“That’s maybe something he got himself into that he couldn’t get out of even if he wanted to. But he’s not a bad person, he’s a kind individual. He would help anybody in need.”
“He would always be there for you as a friend and I’m not going to let other people walk all over him or start accusing him of things when that’s not the person that I know.”
Baratov appeared in court in Hamilton Wednesday morning, court staff said. His case was put over until Friday afternoon, when he was expected to appear by video.
Searle said she will be watching closely as the story unfolds in court and will be there for him throughout the judicial process.
“I’ll support him,” she said. “Because I know he’d do the exact same thing for me.”