July 7, 2010 -- American and Russian diplomats are scrambling to put together an elaborate spy swap as soon as tomorrow that could spring from jail the 10 accused Russian agents who were rounded up last week, according to lawyers and relatives of some of the people who would be exchanged.
A senior U.S. official confirmed that there are negotiations under way for a possible swap.
Russia apparently began pushing for the swap, offering up Igor Sutyagin, a nuclear weapons expert who was convicted of espionage in 2004 and is now in jail, according to Sutyagin's attorney and family. Sutyagin was sentenced by a Russian court to 15 years on charges of passing classified military information to a British firm that prosecutors said was as a front for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency
Sutyagin's brother Dmitry told ABC News Wednesday that American agents met with Sutyagin Tuesday in a Moscow prison.
Dmitry said if the deal goes through, it is likely Sutyagin would be pardoned and freed as early as Thursday. Dmitry said the family believes he would then be flown to Vienna and on to London for release, although they do not know exactly when. He said the scientist will be escorted to Vienna by Russian security services and met by the British. Dmitry confirmed that his brother told him that he and ten others would be exchanged for eleven people including the 10 alleged Russian spies in the U.S.
Also in the possible swap mix is Russian Colonel Sergei Skripal, according to what Sutyagin told his brother. Skripal was convicted of high treason and sentenced to 13 years in prison for allegedly working with Britain's MI6. He was accused of taking $100,000 to reveal the identities of Russian intelligence agents in Europe.
The U.S. official cautioned that it is unlikely that there would be an even swap and said that the U.S. could push for the release of individuals imprisoned in Russia who are not connected with espionage.
According to the Sutyagin's lawyer Anna Stavitskaya, Sutyagin and his family are sad that he had to admit to being guilty in exchange for freedom, but said he had no other choice. Sutyagin has maintained that he is innocent.
Efforts seem to be moving more slowly on the American side of the deal. The Russian government has called attorneys for at least one of the accused spies asking if they would be open to a swap. The Russian Consulate in New York contacted John Rodriguez, attorney for accused Russian spy Vicky Pelaez yesterday.
"[They asked] was she interested in going to Russia? I said, ' For what?'" said Rodriguez, who said Pelaez has family in the United States and has no reason to move to Russia. Rodriguez told ABC News his client his innocent.
Accused Russian Spies
Pelaez is currently being held in downtown Manhattan and is expected to be in court Wednesday afternoon. She is the only one of the group that has been given initial court approval to be released on bail, though federal prosecutors plan to appeal that decision. She is believed to be the only one of the 10 accused agents who is not Russian born.
Pelaez's husband, Juan Lazaro, allegedly made a statement to U.S. authorities when he was arrested almost two weeks ago admitting to have worked as a spy for Russia and pledging his allegiance to the Russian government.
Lazaro's attorney Genesis Paduto told ABC News that her client denies ever making such statements. Paduto said Lazaro is innocent.
Paduto said she first heard of the "spy swap" in the newspapers today and is not aware of any proposal by the Russian government.
It is unclear what would happen to the American-born children of the accused Russian spies. They all have U.S. citizenship and some of them are over the age of 18 and presumably would have to agree to being sent to Russia.
The Russian Embassy could not be reached for comment on this story.
The family of Igor Sutyagin said that he is part of a group of convicted spies Russia will exchange for the alleged Russian spies arrested in the U.S. last week. The scientist is to be released tomorrow, he says as part of a deal in which 11 prisoners from Russia will be traded for 11 in the U.S., including some or all of the suspected Russian agents in the U.S.
"[Sutyagin] said that the list was 11 people from here, 11 from there, one for another," his brother Dmitry told ABC News.
Sutyagin, a weapons specialist, was arrested in 1999 and convicted of spying in 2004, sentenced to 15 years in prison. He is accused of passing nuclear secrets to a British company Russia believed to be a front for the CIA.
He has long denied the charge but one of the conditions of the exchange was signing a confession, which his family says has gutted him.
"He does not admit that he's a spy," his mother Svetlana said. "He is doing this to save his family because if he refuses his family will suffer. On top of that he knows what it's like to be imprisoned, he knows what will happen to those 11 who are in the States now. That's why he doesn't want them to be in prison. If there's a chance of saving both his family and them, he'll leave the country."
Sutyagin's brother said there was no other option, "our special services unfortunately know how to make life impossible in this country."
"Igor was given the clear understanding that he didn't have any other choice. If he said no, the deal would fall apart...," said Dmitry Sutyagin.
No Comment from U.S. State Department
Neither the U.S State Department nor the Russian Foreign Ministry have commented on Sutyagin's pending release. The New York Times reported Wednesday that the U.S. government was discussing a possible solution with the suspected spies' lawyers in order to prevent lengthy trials.
Of the prisoners supposedly requested by the U.S, Sutyagin only remembered one name from a list he was shown – Colonel Sergei Skripal.
Skripal was convicted of high treason in 2006, sentenced to 13 years in prison for allegedly accepting $100,000 to reveal the identities of Russian agents in Europe to Great Britain's MI6 secret service.
On Tuesday, with little warning, Sutyagin was brought to Moscow from his prison in Arkhangelsk in northern Russia, Sutyagin's lawyer said in an interview.
"It was all of a sudden, it happened by surprise," said Anna Stavitskaya. "The day before yesterday he was still in prison and yesterday within half an hour he was he packed up and transported to Lefortovo [prison in Moscow]. Yesterday his parents got a call that they can come to the prison and meet with him and he told them that he's going to be swapped among 11 people."
At Lefortovo, his brother says, he met with American agents.
"Who they were he doesn't know," Dmitry said. "There were Russian representatives and a Russian general supposedly from the internal intelligence services with whom these issues were discussed."
On Thursday, Sutyagin is to be flown to Vienna where he'll be handed off to British officials before flying on to London. His family says he plans to start a new life there but isn't overjoyed by the prospect.
"Igor is a patriot and wanted to continue to live here, that's why he sees being sent to London as trading his camp in Arkhangelsk for a camp in London, but with milder conditions," Sutyagin's brother said. "Meetings with family were limited in Arkhangelsk and they'll be limited in London as well. We won't see him often and it's unclear how we can visit him, how he can visit us, it's all uncertain."