MOSCOW – Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has signed a decree pardoning four convicted foreign spies so they can be exchanged for 10 people accused of spying for Russia in the United States, the Kremlin said Friday.
The Kremlin statement carried by the Russian news agencies says that Medvedev has pardoned Russian citizens Alexander Zaporozhsky, Gennady Vasilenko, Sergei Skripal and Igor Sutyagin.
Medvedev's spokeswoman Natalia Timakova said in the statement that all four had submitted a plea for pardon admitting their guilt.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also issued a statement saying that Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service and the CIA acting on orders from the countries' leadership are conducting a swap of 10 Russian citizens who were arrested in the United States for the four earlier convicted Russian citizens.
It said that the exchange was conducted in the context of "overall improvement of the US-Russian ties and giving them new dynamics." "That agreement gives grounds to believe that the course set by the leaders of Russia and the US will be implemented and attempts to derail it will fail," the ministry added.
The 10 Russian agents freed by the United States are unlikely to be greeted as heroes in Russia, as the Kremlin will likely try to quickly turn the page over the embarrassing incident and avoid further damage in relations with Washington. Nationwide television stations and major newspapers, which toe the Kremlin line, can't be expected to give much coverage to the exposed spies.
Independent newspapers and liberal commentators in Russia have chafed at the obvious lack of results of the spy ring work and ridiculed a low level of the agents' training.
Russian rights activists welcomed the release of one of the four convicted Russians in the swap, military analyst Igor Sutyagin. Sutyagin has insisted on his innocence, saying that the information he provided to a British company that investigators claimed was a CIA cover came from open sources.
His family told reporters this week that Sutyagin said he was forced to sign a confession, although he insisted he wasn't guilty and does not want to leave Russia.
Amnesty International warned that any deal over the release of Sutyagin, which requires him to leave Russia against his wishes, will amount to forcible exile, which is prohibited under international law.
"If Igor Sutyagin is opposed to this "deal" and had to accept it under pressure, it may amount to forcible exile," Nicola Duckworth, Europe and Central Asia Program Director, said in a statement. "It will also deprive him of the chance to clear his name of the charges ."
Sutyagin's mother told Amnesty International that he was coerced into accepting the deal. "He looks at his swap as an expulsion from the country," Svetlana Sutiagina was quoted by Amnesty as saying.
The group said that Sutyagin's trial violated international standards of fairness.
Thre three other convicted agents on the Kremlin's swap lists were carreer Russian intelligence officers.
Sergei Skripal, a former colonel in the Russian military intelligence, was found guilty of passing state secrets to Britain and sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2006. He was accused of revealing the names of several dozen Russian agents working in Europe.
Alexander Zaporozhsky, a former colonel in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, was sentenced in 2003 to 18 years in prison for spying for the United States. Zaporozhsky quit the service in 1997 and settled in the US, but Russia enticed him back and arrested him in 2001.
He was convicted on charges of passing secret information about Russian agents working under cover in the US and about American sources working for Russian intelligence. The US global intelligence company, Stratfor, said that Zaporozhsky was rumored to have passed information leading to the capture of Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames, both extremely valuable double agents in the US intelligence services.
The identity of the fourth person on the list, Gennady Vasilenko, was unclear. One Gennady Vasilenko, a former KGB officer working for Russia's NTV television was arrested in 2005 and next year sentenced to three years in prison on murky charges of illegal weapons possession and resistance to authorities.