Rumours of Russian spy swap deal gather pace

A COURT hearing for three suspects in the Russia spy case was postponed yesterday amid growing speculation the US and Russia are arranging a prisoner swap.

Defence lawyer Daniel Lopez said the hearing in Alexandria, Virginia, for Michael Zottoli, Patricia Mills and Mikhail Semenko was put off.

In Washington, Under-secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, a former American ambassador to Moscow, was due to meet Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak.

Officials declined to comment on the reason for the meeting, the location of which was identified only as “Washington, DC”.

Earlier the brother of a man serving a 14-year prison term in Russia said in Moscow that the United States and Russia were working on a spy swap.

Zottoli, Mills and Semenko are among 11 people arrested last month after an investigation into what prosecutors say was a long-term Russian effort to glean sensitive information.

Dmitry Sutyagin said his brother Igor, who is serving a 14-year prison sentence on charges of spying for the United States, was told by Russian officials that he was included in a group of other convicted foreign spies who are to be exchanged for the Russians arrested by the FBI last month.

The officials met Igor Sutyagin on Monday at a prison in Arkhangelsk, in north-western Russia, and US officials were at the meeting, his brother said.

The swap plans add a new twist to a cloak-and-dagger saga that both Moscow and Washington hope will not undermine improving diplomatic relations.

Russia wants to swap its national Igor Sutyagin, who was sentenced to jail in 2004 for passing classified military information to a British firm which prosecutors said was a front for the US Central Intelligence Agency.

“They want to exchange Sutyagin for one of those arrested in the United States for spying,” Anna Stavitskaya, a lawyer acting for Sutyagin, told Reuters.

“It is a one-for-one exchange. So each of those detained in the United States will be swapped for one person from Russia.”

In court documents that read like the spy novels of John le Carre, FBI counter-intelligence agents explained that many of the accused Russian agents were living under false identities and communicating with Moscow by concealing invisible text messages in photographs posted on public internet sites.

A spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) declined to comment and no Russian official has yet confirmed that a swap could take place. But Russia has always prided itself on bringing trusted agents back to Moscow at all costs and Washington has agreed to swaps before.

And a swap could prevent a long drawn-out trial of the Russian suspects and avoid a possible row both the White House and the Kremlin are eager to avoid.

The New York Times reported the US government was discussing a “broad and rapid resolution to the case” with lawyers for the defendants which could allow them to return to Russia.

News of the possible swap emerged after Sutyagin was suddenly moved this week from a prison in Kholmogory, in Russia’s northern region of Arkhangelsk, to Moscow’s high-security Lefortovo prison and allowed to see his family.

Sutyagin told his family, including brother Dmitry, of the plans to exchange him for the accused in the US in a swap involving travel to Vienna and London.


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