Spy suspects are traded to Russia after guilty pleas
In a high-stakes trade reminiscent of the Cold War, 10 men and women accused of spying for Russia abruptly pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court in New York and were traded to the Russian government for four prisoners convicted there of espionage.
The 10 defendants, who were arrested late last month, pleaded to the relatively minor charges of failing to register as foreign agents and were sentenced to time served — the equivalent of about 12 days or less.
In a courtroom in Lower Manhattan, they were marched in wearing jail garb or street clothes, some in handcuffs.
They were seated in what normally serves as the jury box as U.S. District Judge Kimba M. Wood asked each to reveal his or her true identity and admit guilt.
“Uh, which name?” replied the first defendant, who had been living under the name Richard Murphy in a New Jersey suburb with his wife, who went by the name Cynthia Murphy.
Their real names, they said in court, are Vladimir Guryev and Lydia Guryev.
One by one, the other defendants gave their true names, birth dates and educational backgrounds, most of them speaking into a microphone passed from one to another as if they were guests on a television talk show.
Then, they each said, “Yes, your honor,” when asked if they wanted to plead guilty to the charges.
Most appeared calm and relaxed, sometimes smiling and laughing lightly. One defendant, Anna Chapman, who after her arrest gained instant American celebrity as a Russian “femme fatale,” played with her hair, braiding and rebraiding it.
Another defendant, Vicky Pelaez, a U.S. citizen who worked as a Spanish-language reporter in New York, was alone in breaking down into tears. In the courtroom, her eldest son sat with his head in his hands during much of the proceedings.
In the end, all 10 agreed never to return to United States and had to forfeit property and other assets in this country. An 11th defendant, Christopher Metsos, was arrested in Cyprus last month and freed on bail. He has since disappeared.
When the courtroom drama ended, the defendants were scheduled to be processed, taken by bus to a New York airport and placed by Russian officials aboard a plane bound for Moscow.
In return for the 10 secret agents, the Russian government agreed to release four individuals incarcerated there for “contact with Western intelligence agencies.” Three of them were convicted of treason and, according to the U.S. officials, “all have served a number of years in prison and all are in poor health.”
U.S. prosecutors announced that the Russian government had “agreed to release the Russian prisoners and their families for resettlement.”
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree pardoning four Russian citizens serving in prisons for espionage, presidential spokeswoman Natalia Timakova said.
She identified them as Igor V. Sutyagin, Sergei Skripal, Alexander Zaporozhsky and Gennady Vasilenko. Timakova said the four appealed to the Russian president for clemency and admitted the crimes they had committed.
U.S. authorities said in court papers in New York that “some of the Russian prisoners worked for the Russian military, and/or for various Russian intelligence agencies.”
Sutyagin, a former scientist, was arrested in 1999. He spent five years in pretrial detention, and in 2004 was convicted of passing classified data on Russian submarines and missile systems.
Skripal, a former colonel in Russia’s military intelligence, was given 13 years in 2006 for spying for England. Zaporozhsky, another former Russian intelligence officer, was serving an 18-year sentence after a 2003 espionage arrest.
The four were transferred this week to a prison in Moscow, where they were offered the opportunity to leave Russia with their families. They also had to sign statements admitting their guilt.
A State Department official said negotiations for the trade with Russia began “very early on after the individuals were arrested in this country. The Russian government did move very quickly.”
A Kremlin official, speaking to the Interfax news agency Friday, said the transfer was organized quickly and without complications. “This became possible thanks to the new spirit of Russian-U.S. relations, high level of mutual understanding and confidence between the presidents of the two countries no one will be able to shake,” the official said.
Top Department of Justice and FBI officials insisted that the swap would not deter the U.S. from continuing to ferret out other would-be spies.
“This was an extraordinary case, developed through years of work by investigators, intelligence lawyers and prosecutors, and the agreement we reached today provides a successful resolution for the United States and its interests,” said Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller added that “counterintelligence is a top FBI investigative priority” and said that his agents would work “tirelessly behind the scenes to counter the efforts of those who would steal our nation’s vital secrets.”
Charles Pinck, a partner in the Georgetown Group, a private investigative firm in Washington and president of the OSS [Office of Special Services] Society of McLean, Va., which celebrates the historical accomplishments of spying during World War II, said Russia may have ended up with the better deal.
He argued that the U.S. would have been smarter to wait longer and learn more about the spy ring here, perhaps hoping some or all of the defendants would tell all before they were sent out of the country.
“The longer they were here, the more they would talk,” he said. “So I have to think these arrests were causing serious repercussions back in Russia.”
Robert Baum, a New York public defender who represented Chapman, intimated that she was eager to leave the United States. He said she hoped to eventually return to England after being deported to Moscow.
“It was a difficult decision,” he said of Chapman’s agreement to plead guilty. But he said she had been housed in solitary confinement and let out only for an hour a day, and forbidden from seeing newspapers or television. “She is happy to be out of jail,” he said, but “unhappy this has probably destroyed her business and that she has to return to Moscow.”
John Rodriguez, the attorney representing Pelaez, said she received a promise from the Russian government of $2,000 dollars a month for life wherever she goes after abiding by a deal to travel first to Moscow with the other defendants. Rodriguez said she hoped to return to her native Peru eventually.
He also said she was not acting on behalf of the Russian government but rather was trying to help her husband, codefendant Juan Lazaro, who actually is Mikhail Anatonoljevich Vasenkov. “She loved him,” he said, adding that Pelaez had not even known her husband’s true identity. “She loved America.”
In Russia, the mother of Igor V. Sutyagin said her son had done nothing wrong. “I don’t know how to react to this announcement yet,” Svetlana Sutyagina said in a telephone interview. “I am happy that Igor is pardoned and free now, but Igor is innocent and he bought his freedom by admitting the crime he never committed.”
Sutyagina said that she learned about her son’s release and transfer from media reports. The number of prisoners exchanged by the two countries surprised her.
“Igor told me in prison when I met with him earlier that the list for exchange contained 10 names of Russian prisoners,” she said. “I don’t understand what happened. Maybe the other six didn’t sign a confession.”
Times staff writer Sergei Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.