Eleven people accused of spying for Russia were indicted today in New York federal court amid speculation that the defendants will eventually be traded for alleged U.S. spies held by Moscow.
The indictment unsealed in federal court in Manhattan on Wednesday charges all 11 defendants with conspiring to act as secret agents in the United States on behalf of the Russian Federation. Nine of the defendants were also charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering.
The charges came hours after a Russian academic convicted of espionage at home told his family he will be released from a Russian jail as part of a swap for the 10 spies arrested in New York, Washington and Boston this month. The 11th suspect was arrested and released on bail in Cyprus.
A prisoner-swap would avoid the publicity of a trial, analysts said. Such deals were common in the Cold War.
Five of the 10 suspects arrested by U.S. authorities in connection with the case were hastily ordered to New York today, their scheduled court hearings canceled, amid reports that Washington and Moscow are arranging the swap.
Sutyagin was arrested in 1999 and convicted in 2004 on charges of passing information on nuclear submarines and missile-warning systems to a British company that investigators claimed was a CIA cover.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Sutyagin's mother said he had signed an agreement with Russian authorities as part of the deal, admitting his guilt although he continues to deny the espionage charges on which he was sentenced.
"He couldn't not sign this document," his mother told reporters. The exchange is expected to take place in Vienna on Thursday, reports said. After that time, Sutyagin will travel to the U.S.
The third-ranking U.S. diplomat, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, a former American ambassador to Moscow, had a Wednesday morning meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at Kislyak's residence. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Burns and Kislyak did talk about the spy case but their main purpose was to review Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's recent visit to the Unites States.
Both Toner and the Justice Department declined to comment on a possible prisoner trade.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also had no comment on any possible prisoner trade. Sutyagin's brother, Dmitry, spoke to reporters Wednesday and said his brother was told of the arrangement by Russian officials who met him Tuesday at a prison.
Today's scheduled court hearing in Alexandria, Va., for Michael Zottoli, Patricia Mills and Mikhail Semenko was canceled and the three ordered to New York where the cases against 10 of the 11 defendants will now be handled.
In Boston, defendants Donald Heathfield and his wife, Tracey Lee Ann Foley, of Cambridge, Mass., waived their right to identity and detention hearings there and were being sent to New York as well.
The other five defendants were already in custody in New York.
The defendants were accused of living seemingly ordinary lives in America while they acted as unregistered agents for the Russian government, sending secret messages and carrying out orders they received from their Russian contacts.