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U.S., Russia could be preparing for exchange of spy ring suspects

A Russian scientist serving a prison sentence for spying has been flown to Moscow and will be part of an exchange for the members of the alleged spy ring arrested in the U.S., his family says.

July 07, 2010|By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times
  • Igor Sutyagin stands in a Moscow courtroom in file photo from 2004. He has been serving a 15-year sentence in a prison camp near the Arctic Circle.
Igor Sutyagin stands in a Moscow courtroom in file photo from 2004. He has… (Gleb Shchelkunov / Reuters )

Reporting from Moscow — A Russian scientist serving a 15-year prison sentence on charges of spying for U. S. intelligence services says he and other Russian prisoners will be swapped in the next few days for the members of the alleged Russian spy ring recently arrested in the United States, his family said Wednesday.

Igor Sutyagin, a former researcher for the Moscow-based USA and Canada Institute think tank, was flown to Moscow from a prison camp near the Arctic Circle, where he has been serving a 15-year sentence.

The 45-year-old scientist was arrested in 1999 and spent five years in pretrial detention. In 2004, Sutyagin was found guilty of passing classified information on Russian submarines and missile systems to a British company called Alternative Future, which the investigation claimed was a CIA front.

Russian and international human rights organizations believed Sutyagin was dealing only with officially published, unclassified information and that the verdict was intended to discourage Russian scientists and intellectuals from cooperating with the West.

The scientist's mother, Svetlana Sutyagina, said in a telephone interview that after arriving at Moscow's high-security Lefortovo prison Tuesday, her son was ushered into a room where he met with a general from the Russian security services and three U.S. diplomats.

"He was told that he and nine other prisoners will be exchanged for the 10 Russians recently arrested in the United States," his mother said, adding that her son told her the list was prepared by U.S. officials. "If he agreed, Igor was told he would have to sign a document, which among other things contained a paragraph where Igor was to confess of spying, which he never did before."

"Under different circumstances my son would have never done that," Sutyagina said. "But Igor was in such a state of shock that he signed the document."

Sutyagina was allowed to meet with her son at the Lefortovo prison Wednesday morning, and he told her that he would be flown from Moscow to Vienna and from there to London, where the exchange would take place.

Sutyagina said her son also told her that the Russian general read to him a list of the nine others who would be part of the exchange, but he remembered only one of them: Sergei Stupar, a former Russian military intelligence officer who in 2006 was given a 13-year sentence for spying for Britain.

Russian intelligence services declined to comment on the family's revelations.

"There will be no comments on the situation with the people detained in the United States," Russian Foreign Intelligence Service spokesman Sergei Guskov said on the phone. "At least up to now we have nothing to say."

A U.S. embassy spokesman also declined to comment, saying he heard about it from media reports.

A hearing scheduled Wednesday in Alexandria, Va., for three of the suspected Russian spies, Michael Zottoli, Patricia Mills and Mikhail Semenko, was canceled and they were ordered transported to New York, court records show.

"I can't say anything publicly about it right now," said Charles Burnham, a lawyer for Mills.

Government officials also were not commenting. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was to attend a previously scheduled White House meeting Wednesday night with National Security Advisor Jim Jones and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Some Russian observers and political commentators hurried to hail reports of an impending exchange as another sign of improvement in Russian-U.S. relations.

"On the one hand, if the deal is really in the works, that will be the Kremlin's confirmation that these people were fulfilling some special tasks in the United States in favor of Russia," said Andrei Kortunov, president of New Eurasia Foundation, a Moscow-based think tank, in a phone interview with The Times. "On the other hand, that means that both sides want to hush up the affair quickly and thus demonstrate that both Moscow and Washington are ready to leave the spy scandal behind them and continue to develop the positive trend in their relationship."

Kortunov said it would be an act of goodwill somewhat similar to the famous Rudolph Abel-Francis Gary Powers exchange in 1962.

"However this time it will have a somewhat farcical connotation," Kortunov said. "The alleged spies arrested in the United States didn't really achieve anything in terms of espionage, while Sutyagin, many human rights activists believe, was not a spy either, and his conviction was purely political."

sergei.loiko@latimes.com

Staff writer Ken Dilanian in Washington contributed to this report.

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