Lawyer claims exchange planned in Russia spy scandal

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Moscow is planning to release a Russian arms expert convicted of espionage in exchange for members of the alleged spy ring arrested in the United States, a lawyer said on Wednesday.

Anna Stavitskaya, lawyer for Igor Sutyagin, said he had informed his relatives that he was to be released as part of such an exchange between Moscow and Washington.

"He is going to be exchanged for the people who are being accused of espionage in the United States," Stavitskaya told a news conference.

Russian arms expert Sutyagin was convicted in 2004 of handing over classified information to the United States, via a British security company that Russia claimed was a CIA cover, and sentenced to 15 years in jail.

Sutyagin's brother Dmitry told the same news conference that Sutyagin would be transferred to Vienna, from where he would fly on to London. There was no comment on the claims from Russian authorities.

The comments came as three alleged members of a Russian spy ring were to appear in court on Wednesday in Alexandria, Virginia accused of operating deep under cover for the Kremlin in the United States since the 1990s.

The defendants are among 10 alleged Russian "deep cover" sleeper agents arrested on June 27 in an FBI swoop.

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

Dmitry Sutyagin said that his brother had told the family that the suggestion from the exchange had come from the American side.

"The Americans presented a list of people for whom they were ready to exchange the people detained in America accused of espionage. Igor was among them."

Sutyagin "was told three or four surnames literally, not 11, but apparently they must exchange 11 (people) for 11," his brother Dmitry said.

"They explained quite clearly that if even one person from this list refused, then the agreement would fall apart."

Sutyagin met his mother and brother earlier Wednesday after officials at Moscow's Lefortovo prison called to arrange a visit, they said.

He had been transferred to Moscow from his prison in the Russian Far North earlier this week, they added.

Sutyagin said he met with "US representatives" and a "Russian general, most likely from the Foreign Intelligence Service," his brother Dmitry said.

"From talking with Igor, it became clear that this question was decided at the highest level, most likely on the level of the presidents of Russia and the United States," Dmitry added.

Lawyer Stavitskaya said it was unclear how such an exchange would be formulated in legal terms.

"Igor told his relatives that it would be formulated in such a way that he has received a pardon."

Sutyagin agreed to sign a document in which he fully admitted his guilt -- a requirement for those pardoned -- and was told he had been given a foreign travel passport and would keep his Russian citizenship, his brother said.

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.

However no such manoeuvre has been hinted at by either side at on official level in public on this occasion.

© 2010 AFP

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