Freedom brings no joy, say Russian arms expert's supporters
The release in the US spy swap of a Russian arms expert convicted of espionage is no victory after he was forced to admit guilt despite a long fight to prove his innocence, his supporters said Friday.
Under a secret deal between Moscow and Washington, Igor Sutyagin and three other Russian convicts have been expelled from Russia, a move highly reminiscent of Soviet practices when Moscow would renounce undesired citizens.
This week Sutyagin was unexpectedly plucked out of his prison in the Russian Far North, transferred to a high-security jail in Moscow and granted a meeting with his family, before being put onto a plane to take him to a new life.
His ticket to freedom, officials told him, was for him to admit he was a US spy.
"Naturally, he fell into a trance," his father Vyacheslav Sutyagin told AFP by phone from his home town of Obninsk just outside Moscow.
"For 11 years he had denied he was a spy. It was like a bolt from the blue. Essentially, he has been kicked out of the country."
First detained in 1999, Sutyagin, a researcher at the respected USA and Canada Institute in Moscow, was charged in November that year with treason, facing up to 20 years in jail, but in a convoluted process, he was not convicted until 2004, as the first trial broke down.
He was convicted of handing over classified information to a British company that Russia claimed was a CIA cover, and sentenced to 15 years in jail.
He pleaded not guilty, saying the information came from open sources, and human rights activists have called his trial politicised.
Sutyagin's agreement to become part of the swap was immediately interpreted by Kremlin supporters as a confession of guilt.
Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin analyst and a lawmaker with the ruling United Russia party controlled by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, said it was clear that Sutyagin was a Western spy.
"The mere fact that the US authorities wanted to trade him is a clear confirmation that he is an American spy," Markov told AFP.
This line of thinking, said Sutyagin's lawyer Anna Stavitskaya, has already plunged her client into depression.
"If only his own fate were at stake, I think he would never, even under torture, agree to participate in the swap in the role in which he now has to appear," Stavitskaya said in comments published in Russia's top opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta on Friday.
"It is as if that all these 11 years spent in unbearable conditions fighting to prove that the charges against him are groundless have lost any meaning," she said.
Her client, she added, was in low spirits, gaunt and unshaven because the officials would not trust him with a razor.
Sutyagin's relatives said he had agreed to take part in the deal out of concern for his family as well as 10 Russian spies facing prison time in the United States.
Amnesty International has already expressed concern over the Russian researcher's fate.
"If Igor Sutyagin is opposed to this 'deal' and had to accept it under pressure, it may amount to forcible exile," Nicola Duckworth, its programme director for Europe and Central Asia, said.
"It will also deprive him of the chance to clear his name of the charges he has been convicted of."
Stavitskaya said it was unclear who compiled the lists of Russian convicts to be swapped for the Kremlin agents, noting that Washington considers Sutyagin a political prisoner and not a spy.
Markov, the United Russia lawmaker, dismissed such notion as naive. "It does not work this way," he said. "There are no altruists in the US intelligence."
Independent defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said he had heard from his sources that Putin truly believed Sutyagin was a traitor and was upset that Russia had to let him go.
"Putin was furious," he said. "They had to give away the real agents in exchange for some clowns."
© 2010 AFP