Court hearing for Russians accused of spying in the US

7th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

Three alleged members of a Russian spy ring appear in court on Wednesday accused of operating deep under cover for the Kremlin in the United States since the 1990s.

Mikhail Kutzik and Natalia Pereverzeva, who lived together in the Washington suburb of Arlington under false identities, are charged along with a third suspect, Mikhail Semenko, with being unregistered foreign agents.

Prosecutors will present evidence at an 11:00 am (1500 GMT) hearing in Alexandria, Virginia and the defendants can cross-examine any witnesses and contest the assertion of "probable cause."

The judge can either order the case to proceed to trial or dismiss the charges. Lawyers have said any eventual trial would be held in New York along with seven other co-accused.

The defendants are among 10 alleged Russian "deep cover" sleeper agents arrested on June 27 in an FBI swoop that recalled shadowy Cold War hostilities and threatened to upset efforts to reset ties between the superpowers.

An 11th suspect, accused Kremlin paymaster Christopher Metsos, was arrested in Cyprus the following day but freed on bail and subsequently vanished.

Kutzik and Pereverzeva have confessed to being Russian citizens and living under the false identities of "Michael Zottoli" and "Patricia Mills."

The couple, who lived with their two sons -- aged one and three -- in a flat in Arlington, were denied bail last week along with Semenko after being deemed a flight risk.

Pereverzeva and Kutzik have asked a friend caring for their children since their arrest to take them to family members living in Russia.

The pair are accused of being part of the "Illegals" program, a covert operation set up by Russia's SVR foreign intelligence service, a successor to the Soviet-era KGB, to infiltrate US policy-making circles.

Prosecutors say searches of their home and rented safe deposit boxes since their arrest turned up 80,000 dollars in cash in eight envelopes "packaged in exactly the same way" as other suspects arrested in Boston and New York.

The FBI also found a specially configured laptop, codebooks and radio equipment and said the couple had traveled to Wurtsboro, New York in 2006, when Kutzik dug up a package of money buried in a field by a co-conspirator.

Semenko, who was believed to be operating under his real name, allegedly admitted to an undercover FBI agent, who was posing as a Russian government official, that he had been trained by the SVR.

He was taped as he had a long conversation with the agent that could have been taken straight from the pages of a spy thriller.

"Could we have met in Beijing in 2004?" the FBI agent asked. "Yes, we might have, but I believe it was in Harbin," Semenko responded, according to the indictment, which explained this was the coded greeting used by the spies.

He was indicted on a separate charge sheet along with Anna Chapman, a Russian-born New York real estate entrepreneur whose good looks and flashy lifestyle have seen her branded the spy saga's femme fatale.

Unlike the other nine suspects, both used their real names and only face the shorter five-year sentence for conspiring to work as foreign agents.

None were charged with the more serious crime of espionage, apparently because they never managed to pass on anything secret or significant to their Kremlin spymasters.

Some had limited success in infiltrating US policy-making circles, with Al Gore's former top security aide Leon Fureth and New York tycoon Alan Patricof reportedly admitting to having had some kind of contact with the accused.

The case erupted just three days after US President Barack Obama held a chummy White House summit with Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev, but both sides have played down the notion of any diplomatic fallout.

Bail hearings for the suspects arrested in Boston, Donald Howard Heathfield and Tracey Lee Ann Foley -- both fake identities -- were postponed until next week.

Only Vicky Pelaez, a well-known Peruvian-American journalist who was married to one of five New York suspects, has been granted bail, although the US Justice Department has appealed that decision.

© 2010 AFP

0 Comments To This Article