Russia spy suspects plead guilty, opening way to swap
Ten suspected Russian agents pled guilty Thursday in a New York courtroom after accepting a plea bargain that opens the way for a Cold War-style spy swap deal between Russia and the United States.
"It's the government understanding that each of the defendants present would apply to plead guilty," a prosecutor told the judge, explaining this was part of a "plea agreement." Each then, in turn, entered their actual plea.
The 10 suspects, appearing together for the first time, only pled guilty to the first and lesser charge of acting as an illegal foreign agent and not to the graver money laundering count, which carries a maximum term of 20 years.
Speculation had been mounting that the suspects would admit their guilt under a deal that would see them rapidly leave the United States, with Russia in turn releasing several convicts jailed for spying for the West.
A lawyer for Igor Sutyagin, a Russian arms expert jailed in 2004 on charges of spying for the CIA, said her client may already have been released and taken to Vienna as part of the swap.
Such a swap would allow Russia and the United States to avoid potentially embarrassing and diplomatically damaging court wrangling at a time when they are pursuing a much-vaunted reset of relations.
The 10 were arrested on June 27 in an FBI swoop in Boston and the New York and Washington areas. They are accused of being members of a "deep-cover" spy ring tasked by the Russian secret service with infiltrating US policymaking circles.
The maximum jail term for the charge they pled guilty to -- acting as illegal foreign agents -- is five years.
An 11th suspect, accused paymaster Christopher Metsos, remains at large after vanishing last week in Cyprus following a court decision to release him on bail.
Signs grew earlier Thursday that Russia and the United States were indeed planning to stage a dramatic spy swap to end the espionage scandal, which has threatened to harm improving relations.
Online Russian newspaper Gazeta.ru said Anna Chapman, 28, whose glamorous looks made her an overnight international sensation, would return to Moscow overnight "incognito" as part of the prisoner exchange and no official announcement would be made.
In a possibly significant encounter, a US State Department spokesman confirmed that William Burns, a former US ambassador to Moscow, met Wednesday with Russia's US Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, US officials said.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declined comment on the reports of a spy swap, telling reporters the Justice Department was handling the issue.
Exchanges of captured agents between Western and Eastern powers were a regular tactic in the Cold War, sometimes on the Glienicke Bridge between East and West Germany.
The Kommersant newspaper published three more names of Russians convicted for espionage whom it said would be swapped for the suspected Russian agents.
Kommersant said the list of those to be exchanged included Sergei Skripal, a former colonel with Russian military intelligence sentenced in 2006 to 13 years jail on charges of spying for Britain.
The list also included a former employee of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Alexander Zaporozhsky, who was jailed for 18 years for espionage in 2003, and Alexander Sypachev, sentenced in 2002 to eight years in jail for spying for the CIA, it said.
© 2010 AFP