Eight held in US over 'Russian hi-tech smuggling plot'

Police search Arc Electronics Inc in Houston, 3 October Boxes of files were removed from Mr Fishenko's company in Houston

Eight people have been arrested in Houston, Texas, on charges of illegally exporting hi-tech components to Russian security bodies.

Alexander Fishenko, who owns companies in Texas and Moscow, was charged with operating in the US as an unregistered agent of the Russian government.

The indictment names 11 suspects, all of whom are due in court in Houston except for three who are in Russia.

There was no immediate comment on the charges from those detained.

However, a Russian foreign ministry spokesman, Sergei Ryabkov, quoted US officials as saying the charges were "of a criminal nature".

They bore "no relation whatsoever to any intelligence-gathering activities", he told Russia's Ria-Novosti news agency.

Mr Fishenko, 46, a naturalised US citizen and owner of Houston-based company Arc Electronics Inc, was also charged with laundering money.

The US keeps strict controls on the export of cutting-edge microelectronics, which could be used in radar and surveillance systems, weapons guidance systems and detonation triggers.

A Houston FBI statement names six men and five women as suspects, ranging in age from 31 to 58.

Under US sentencing guidelines, Mr Fishenko faces more than 12 years in prison if convicted on all of the charges.

'Bad chips'

Federal prosecutors, who laid their charges in a court in Brooklyn, New York, said Mr Fishenko and his co-accused had "engaged in a surreptitious and systematic conspiracy" since October 2008 to obtain the technology from US manufacturers and export it to Russia.

The Associated Press news agency describes Mr Fishenko as an "American success story... an immigrant from Kazakhstan who made millions off his Texas export firm".

Start Quote

"[M]ake sure that those are fishing boats, and not fishing/anti-submarine ones”

End Quote Words attributed to suspect Alexander Posobilov in a letter to a Russian company

According to court papers, he graduated from a technical institute in the Russian city of St Petersburg before going to America in 1994.

He holds US and Russian passports and has frequently travelled overseas to do business, making tens of millions of dollars on exports, US officials say.

On its website, Arc Electronics describes itself as a "full-service electronics supplier, serving a diverse group of customers, including original equipment manufacturers of medical instruments, oil and gas equipment, and commercial products".

Arc's accounting records show a "striking similarity between fluctuations in Arc's gross revenues and the Russian Federation's defence spending over the last several years", the court papers record.

Investigators say they also recovered a letter to Arc from a Russian domestic intelligence agency lab complaining that micro chips supplied by the company were defective.

Intercepted phone calls and emails also "constitute devastating evidence of Fishenko's illegal procurement for the Russian government".

'Military client'

Prosecutors said the evidence had revealed repeated attempts by Mr Fishenko to cover his tracks.

In one instance in March, he "directed an employee of a Russian procurement firm to 'make sure that our guys don't discuss extra information, such as this is for our military client'"', the court papers say.

Documents and websites used by Arc and its partners were allegedly altered to remove military references.

For instance, according to the indictment, Arc employee Alexander Posobilov allegedly told a Russian procurement company to make sure the end use export certificate read "fishing boats, and not fishing/anti-submarine ones".

"Then we'll be able to start working," Mr Posobilov, who is among those charged, allegedly added.

About a dozen FBI agents in Houston searched Fishenko's firm in an industrial area of south-west Houston on Wednesday, removing at least 18 cardboard boxes of materials.

AP reports that the name of Mr Fishenko's attorney was not immediately available. His wife, Viktoria, who was identified as a co-owner of her husband's business but was not charged, declined to comment.

"I will speak when I know what's going on," she said.

Confirming that Russian citizens were among those arrested, the Russian foreign ministry said it had already been in contact with one of the detainees.

Stephen L Morris, head of the FBI office in Houston, commented that some countries were seeking to bypass export safeguards "to improve their defence capabilities and to modernise weapons systems at the expense of US taxpayers".

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