Against a backdrop of fast-moving, Cold War-style diplomacy, 10 Russian secret agents were ordered expelled from the U.S. Thursday in exchange for four men imprisoned for spying on Moscow for the West.
During a nearly two-hour unemotional hearing in federal court in Manhattan, the 10, five men and five women, admitted being part of a conspiracy to act as spies for the Russian Federation.
Immediately after accepting their guilty pleas, U.S. District Court Judge Kimba Wood sentenced the defendants to time already served and ordered them deported. They had faced maximum prison terms of up to 5 years and fines of $250,000.
Around 10:30 p.m., a law enforcement official said the 10 had departed New York for Moscow, The Associated Press reported.
Earlier, Attorney Daniel Lopez, who represented defendant Mikhail Semenko, said the defendants would be put on a plane to Europe, but he didn't know where the first stop would be.
In a statement, the Kremlin said Russian president Dmitry Medvedev had pardoned Russian citizens Alexander Zaporozhsky, Gennady Vasilenko, Sergei Skripal and Igor Sutyagin, convicted as foreign spies. Skripal is a former colonel in the Russian military intelligence, and Zaporozhsky is a former colonel in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. Sutyagin, an arms analyst, was reportedly plucked from a Moscow prison and put on a plane to Vienna. Relatives told news media he would then be sent on to London.
The 10 arrested in the United States two weeks ago were charged in federal criminal complaints with acting as unregistered foreign agents for the Russian government. An 11th suspect, Christopher Metsos, disappeared in Cyprus.
The diplomatic maneuvering became clear when, in a letter to Wood, federal prosecutors said the four would be released with family members for resettlement in the West. Some were in poor health.
Three of the four were accused by Russia of contacting Western intelligence agencies while they were working for the Russian or Soviet government, the letter stated.
Defense attorneys said in federal court their clients had all been visited in jail by representatives of the Russian government. The attorneys were present for some of the visits and while they couldn't understand the discussions in Russian, their clients told them nothing was said by the officials to induce the guilty pleas.
However, John Rodriguez, attorney for former El Diario journalist Vicky Pelaez, said she was told by the officials she would have a cushy life when she was resettled in Russia. Among the benefits: free housing, the ability to travel anywhere including to her native Peru, a $2,000 monthly stipend and visas for her children so they could visit her at the Russian government's expense, said Rodriguez.
Other defense attorneys interviewed couldn't say whether their clients had similar discussions with Russian officials about benefits they would receive.
Wood asked each to state their true names and ages and whether they knew their rights. All said they did, many speaking in heavy European accents despite years spent posing as U.S. citizens.
President Barack Obama has been "fully briefed and engaged in the matter," an administration official told The Washington Post. The arrangement spoke to progress made in U.S.-Russian relations, the White House said. The Russian Foreign Ministry said the swap was conducted in the context of "overall improvement of the U.S.-Russian ties and giving them new dynamics."
With Pervaiz Shallwani
and Tom Brune