Russia trades four Western spies for Kremlin agents
The United States is to trade 10 Russian agents for four Western spies after sealing Thursday a Cold War-style swap deal with Moscow to end an espionage saga neither side wanted.
The dramatic events played out in a New York courtroom with a prosecutor first announcing that all 10 Russian spy suspects were pleading guilty to the lesser charge of acting as illegal foreign agents.
It then emerged that under the terms of the "plea bargain," Moscow had agreed to release four Western spies, promising housing and monthly payments to at least one of its agents for life to seal the deal.
"The key provision of the United States-Russia agreement is that the Russian Federation has agreed to release four individuals who are incarcerated in Russia for alleged contact with Western intelligence agencies," said a letter from US Attorney Preet Bharara outlining the plea deal.
Judge Kimba Wood ordered the Russian agents, appearing together for the first time since their June 27 arrests, to be deported immediately from the United States.
"They will have to agree to immediate removal," Wood said. That means "immediate expulsion from the United States," and they "agree never to attempt to return to the US."
The 10 suspects 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.
Under the terms of the deal, the judge agreed they could be released for deportation immediately, effectively having been sentenced only to "time served."
A defense lawyer added: "The plea agreement has been provided by the defense to representatives of the Russian Federation, and the word back is that it is acceptable to the Russian Federation."
A prosecutor hinted at the lengths Russia had been willing to go to to get its spies back as he outlined one of the deals for well-known Peruvian-American journalist Vicky Pelaez, who was married to another defendant.
"Vicky Pelaez has also been visited, they promised her free housing, visas for her children, all expenses paid and, for her 2,000 dollars a month for life," the prosecutor said.
Court documents did not relate when exactly the 10 spies would be deported, or if they would fly directly to Russia.
The identities of the Western agents they were being traded for was also not confirmed by the judge or in the court documents.
"Some of the Russian prisoners worked for the Russian military, and/or for various Russian intelligence agencies," the attorney's letter said.
"Three of the Russian prisoners have been accused by Russia of contacting Western intelligence agencies while they were working for the Russian (or Soviet) government."
A lawyer for Igor Sutyagin, a Russian arms expert jailed in 2004 on charges of spying for the CIA, said her client was one of them and may already have been released and taken to Vienna as part of the swap.
The deal allows 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.
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 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.
The 10 agents were arrested on June 27 in an FBI swoop in Boston and the New York and Washington areas, three days after a chummy White House summit between US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev.
Monitored by the FBI since 2000, they were accused of being members of a "deep-cover" spy ring tasked by the Russian secret service with infiltrating US policymaking circles.
An 11th suspect, accused paymaster Christopher Metsos, remains at large after vanishing last week in Cyprus after a court released him on bail.
© 2010 AFP