AP Interview: Russian arms researcher says he wishes more had been freed in dramatic spy deal

By Raphael G. Satter, AP
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

AP Interview: Russian haunted by role in spy swap

LONDON — The Russian arms researcher released from prison in a Cold War-style spy swap has mixed feelings about the deal and wishes more of his colleagues had been freed.

Igor Sutyagin, still struggling to adjust to life in Britain following 11 years behind bars in Russia, told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday that he assumed more people would be liberated when he signed the confession that set the exchange into motion.

Sutyagin told the AP he knew of at least eight fellow academics languishing in Russian prisons, including physicist Valentin Danilov, who is serving a 14-year-sentence for working with allegedly sensitive information that his defenders argue has long been in the public domain.

“I would be glad if I sat next to them on the plane to Vienna,” Sutyagin said, describing his flight from Moscow to freedom on July 9. “I would definitely be happy — not only glad — if more people would be free.”

Sutyagin, 45, was one of four Russians released in a dramatic exchange that followed the arrest of 10 deep-cover Russian agents operating in the United States.

But his was not the classic case of spy-for-spy. Russia watchers have described his 1999 conviction on charges of treason as a part of campaign by the Kremlin to intimidate the nation’s academics. Sutyagin has long insisted on his innocence.

In earlier remarks to journalists and lawyers in central London on Tuesday, Sutyagin said his signature was part of “a very clear deal: honor for freedom.”

But he said he also had in mind the prisoners — both in the U.S. and in Russia — whose fate hung on his move. Describing the torment of being a prisoner, and the pain it had put its family through, he said he felt as if “my relatives were somehow imprisoned with me.” He said he did not want to put other families through that same pain.

Sutyagin also described his arrest and incarceration, saying he was waiting for a taxi on Oct. 27, 1999, when men from the security service showed up at his door. He said they told him they wanted to have a conversation.

“It was a 10-year, eight-month long conversation,” he said. “I never came back.”

Sutyagin, who worked for a British company known as Alternative Futures, was convicted in April 2004 following a series of trials which his defense lawyers claimed were marred by prosecutorial misconduct. Held at a series of facilities in the Ural Mountains region before being transferred to a maximum-security prison in the far northern city of Archangelsk.

Sutyagin said conditions at the prisons weren’t bad, but he reported Kafkaesque interactions with jailers who he claimed openly acknowledged that nearly half their inmates had been wrongly convicted.

The slightly built scientist was at his most poignant when he described the day he suddenly realized he could be freed — if he admitted betraying his country.

“It was a sort of mess in my head,” he said, describing the two hours he spent deciding whether to sign a confession written by someone else as Russian officials oversaw him.

With only a hazy idea of spy exchange hammered out ahead of time between Moscow and Washington, he said he eventually decided he couldn’t bring himself to jeopardize the liberty of others.

“I thought the deal was for 22 people,” he said, referring to 11 Russians initially detained in the FBI sting and the 11 detainees he thought would be released in return. Although far fewer of the Kremlin’s prisoners were released in the end, Sutyagin declined to dwell on what might have been done differently, saying that he is still collecting his thoughts on the matter.

Sutyagin’s flight from Vienna dropped him off in Britain with nothing by way of official explanation, and on Tuesday he told the AP he had yet to make his peace with life here. Despite having worked for an U.K. company, he has only weak links to Britain and he repeatedly expressed the wish to return to Russia.

He compared his predicament to a swimmer trapped under a sheet of ice, searching desperately for a hole through which to breathe.

“That hole would be the old Russia which I left long ago,” he said.

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