US & Canada

US 'spies' court move ahead of Russian 'swap'

Some of the accused spies in a New York courtroom, 1 July 2010
Image caption The suspects have up to now appeared in courts in different cities

Ten suspected Russian spies are being moved to New York to face charges ahead of a possible prisoner swap.

The suspects are due to appear together in a federal court on Thursday.

Reports from the US and Moscow suggest Washington may opt to deport the 10 in exchange for Russian prisoners.

Neither Russian nor US authorities have commented on the reports. The lawyer of a man jailed in Russia for spying for the CIA is reported as saying he is to be traded for a person held in the UK.

Anna Stavitskaya, the lawyer for nuclear scientist Igor Sutyagin, told the BBC that Moscow would expel him from Russia in exchange for an unnamed UK detainee.

Sutyagin, a nuclear specialist, is serving a 15-year jail sentence after being convicted of passing information to a UK firm allegedly used as a front by the CIA.

It remains unclear whether the suspects held in New York are to be involved in any swap, but in a move that fuelled speculation, a top US diplomat met the Russian ambassador to Washington.

No details were given of the talks between undersecretary of state for political affairs William Burns, a former US ambassador to Moscow, and Ambassador Sergei Kislyak other than the fact that the issue of spies came up in the meeting, in which they also discussed Iran.

'Next step'

In New York on Wednesday, a court unsealed an indictment against the 10 alleged Russian agents and an 11th suspect who went missing after being released on bail in Cyprus.

Justice department spokesman Dean Boyd said: "As the government indicated would happen when the case began, the defendants are being transported to the Southern District of New York to face the charges against them."

He added: "Today's indictment is the next step in that process."

A lawyer for one of the accused said on Wednesday that the swap could be finalised on Thursday.

"I feel our discussions will probably be resolved by tomorrow one way or another," Anna Chapman's lawyer Robert Baum was quoted as saying by the New York Times.

He said he had spoken to US prosecutors and Russian officials about a speedy resolution to the case.

The 10 accused were arrested last month on suspicion of conspiring to work as illegal agents for the Russian government.

The crime is less serious than espionage but carries a sentence of up to five years in prison.

Nine of the group are also accused of money laundering.

Rapid resolution

Three of the suspected spies had been due to attend a court hearing in Virginia on Wednesday.

But the hearing was postponed and orders were issued to transport them "promptly to the Southern District of New York for further proceedings".

Two others were to be transported from Boston.

No reason has been given for the transfer to New York, where the other suspects are in custody.

On Wednesday, the New York Times quoted sources close to the case as saying the federal government was seeking a rapid resolution.

Meanwhile, the US government said it would appeal against a New York judge's decision to allow one suspect, Vicky Pelaez, to be released on bail.

The court will hear arguments in the matter on Friday.

'Illegal agents'

In Russia, Sutyagin was quoted as saying that he expected to be put on flights to Vienna, then London, on Thursday.

Image caption Igor Sutyagin was convicted of spying for the CIA in Russia in 2004

According to his brother, Dmitry, he said he had been told by Russian officials that he would be released and sent to the UK in exchange for an unknown number of spies.

The officials met Sutyagin on Monday at a prison in Arkhangelsk, northern Russia, and US officials were at the meeting, the brother said.

After Monday's meeting, the prisoner was reportedly moved to Moscow's Lefortovo prison.

Sutyagin's lawyer, Ms Stavitskaya, told Reuters that her client had agreed to be swapped "as he had no other choice left".

"He knew that otherwise his whole life would be broken but he still insists he is innocent," she said.

Russian media quote a member of Sutyagin's family as saying he had seen a list of names of prisoners likely to be swapped by Russia, including Sergei Skripal.

Skripal is a Russian military intelligence (GRU) officer convicted of spying for the UK in 2006.

What is your reaction to this story? Would a "spy swap" be a good deal for the US and for Russia? Send us your comments.

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