By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2010; A09
Igor Sutyagin, a Russian disarmament researcher, is one of Moscow's biggest bargaining chips in a possible spy swap with the United States.
Sutyagin was working for the Institute for the Study of the United States and Canada in Moscow 11 years ago when he was jailed for allegedly selling information about nuclear submarines and missile warning systems to a British firm. Russian prosecutors alleged that the firm, Alternative Futures, was a front for the CIA.
At the time, Sutyagin, then 39, denied the charges, saying that he was a consultant to the firm and that the only information he had collected was from public documents, newspapers and other open sources. He also said he was not aware of any ties between Alternative Futures and the CIA.
Sutyagin's lawyer, Anna Stavitskaya, said in an interview Wednesday that her client had been forced to sign a document this week that included an admission of guilt. But she said he insisted to his parents, who relayed the account to Stavitskaya, "that he is absolutely innocent" of the charges against him.
"He has never been a spy, and he had to sign the paper because he did not have any other choice," Stavitskaya said. "He thinks that if they exchange him for the so-called spies, everyone will think that he is a spy also, and he is not."
Even before Sutyagin's conviction, Russian and international human rights groups had urged Moscow to release him. Human Rights Watch sent a letter to European Union governments seeking their help in raising the issue with the government of Vladimir Putin. After his conviction, the State Department mentioned the case in its 2007 human rights report.
The first court to hear Sutyagin's case, in 2001, refused to convict the researcher because of inadequate evidence. But the court sent the case back to the FSB, the domestic successor to the KGB, for further investigation. After he was found guilty in 2004 -- and sentenced to 15 years in prison -- commentators and analysts decried the verdict and said an overzealous government in Moscow was simply seeking to discourage others from sharing sensitive information with other countries.
In an op-ed piece in The Washington Post, Masha Lipman, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, described Sutyagin's conviction as offering "more evidence of how Russia's judicial system is falling under the control of the executive branch." She said it showed how "even the jury trial can be turned into a mock institution when superior political will and 'accusatory bias' substitute for justice."
After the trial, Sutyagin's boss at the Institute for the Study of the United States and Canada, Sergei Rogov, said his researcher never disclosed before his arrest that he worked for the British firm. He said Sutyagin sometimes left the country to meet with company officials in Warsaw, Budapest and elsewhere without telling him.
"He was doing it outside the normal rules, behind my back, and that's why he invited trouble," Rogov said in a 2004 interview.
In the intervening years, Sutyagin has appealed unsuccessfully to Russia's Supreme Court. Putin declined to pardon him because he had not admitted his guilt.
Special correspondent Natasha Abbakumova in Moscow contributed to this report.