N-researcher could be freed for alleged agents held in U.S.

Moscow and Washington are moving rapidly towards a spy swap that would exchange 10 accused Russian agents arrested in the U.S. last week for alleged western spies jailed by Russia.

The Russian authorities were preparing to send a scientist, convicted six years ago of passing atomic secrets to U.S. intelligence, to Britain as part of the swap, said his family. Igor Sutyagin was transferred from a remote Arctic penal colony to Moscow in preparation for the exchange. His father told the Guardian he was one of those to be used as “collateral” in the deal.

In the U.S., the New York Times reported that officials are in discussions with the lawyers of the alleged long-term, deep-cover Russian agents detained last week over plea bargains that would see them swiftly convicted of minor offences and sent back to Moscow. Five of the alleged spies were moved to New York at short notice on Wednesday after court hearings were cancelled.

An exchange would avoid protracted and potentially embarrassing trials for both countries. The alleged spies' lack of success and the FBI's weak case would come under close scrutiny.

Mr. Sutyagin was arrested in 1999 and convicted five years later of passing secret material on atomic submarines and missile warning systems to a British-based consultancy firm that prosecutors in Moscow said was a CIA front. There has been no official confirmation of the planned exchange but the scientist's father, Vyacheslav Sutyagin, told the Guardian that Russian intelligence officers said his son could be freed on Thursday: “My wife Svetlana and Igor's brother, Dmitry, met with an officer from the Foreign Intelligence Service [SVR] at Lefortovo who explained the plan,” he said. “He said that Igor and nine other people who they have rounded up in Russia will be swapped for the spies who were arrested in the United States. It was not clear why, but it seems that Igor will go to Austria and from there to Britain.” He added: “In order for them to let him go, my son had to sign a document accepting that he was a spy, which was morally oppressive for him but he had no choice if he wanted to gain his freedom.

“My son knows English well and we hope he may be able to find work in Britain.”

Supporters of Mr. Sutyagin, an arms control expert who worked for Moscow's prestigious USA and Canada Institute, have campaigned for years for his release saying the material he sold came from open sources and he had no reason to suspect it was a CIA front.

Vyacheslav Sutyagin said he understood another of the people to be swapped would be Sergei Skripal, a Russian military intelligence officer jailed for treason for passing secrets to British intelligence in the 1990s.

All but one of the 10 accused in the U.S. are believed to be Russian citizens although the true identities of most of them remains unknown. The tenth is an American married to a Russian.

The alleged spies are being held in prison on charges of working as unregistered agents of a foreign government. They are not accused of espionage. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010