US says Russia forced four to admit spying
Russia forced four convicted Western spies to admit to the charges as a condition for a swap announced on Thursday, a senior US official said.
The Kremlin announced that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had pardoned four detained Russians, including arms control expert Igor Sutyagin, as part of a deal for 10 people who admitted in a New York court to spying for Moscow.
The US government has long denied that Sutyagin was a spy, as have some advocates for the four prisoners.
A senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to say if the United States was now admitting they were spies. But he said that US diplomats met the four and explained to them the Russian condition.
"It was a Russian government condition that each of the four individuals sign a statement admitting guilt as part of an application for pardon," the official told reporters in Washington.
"I leave it to the individuals involved to tell their stories, including their years of imprisonment. But in order to get out of jail, they had no choice but to sign the Russian government oath," the US official said.
The United States said it decided on the swap due to health concerns over the four imprisoned in Russia and because it saw little security reason to keep the 10 spy suspects in prison.
Among those being sent to Russia is Peruvian-American journalist Vicky Pelaez, who unlike the others is a US citizen. But the US official said that as part of the deal, she agreed never to return to the United States.
"It's true she is a citizen and on the other hand, though, as part of her agreement she has also agreed to leave the United States and not to return absent the authorization of the attorney general," the official said.
The plea agreement states that if any of the suspects want to profit in the future by selling details of their court case, the proceeds would go to the US government.
"That is a not uncommon provision for these kinds of plea cases like this that enjoy a certain notoriety," the senior US official said.
The official also defended President Barack Obama's policy of trying to improve relations with Russia.
The 10 suspects were arrested shortly after Medvedev's visit to the United States, but the official said the timing was coincidental and only because of intelligence that one of the suspects may have planned to leave the country.
He said that Russia, after initial denials, "moved very quickly to resolve the spy scandal."
"I think in many respects the handling of this case and its aftermath reflects the progress we've made in US-Russian relations," the official said.
"No one should be surprised that some vestiges of the past remain or that Russia has an active intelligence service," he said.
© 2010 AFP