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11 Jul, 2010 05:22

World cools down as Russia-US spy saga comes to a close

As the US and Russia swap spies, one of the world’s hottest stories of the summer is coming to a close – becoming the shortest special agent story to be devoured by the media in modern history.

A swap deal between Moscow and Washington involving Russian and Western agents has been completed, AP news agency reported. The exchange took place in the Vienna airport and the plane carrying Russian deportees arrived at Moscow's Domodedovo airport at about 17-30 local time on Friday.

Another plane allegedly carrying Russian spies involved in the swap with the US arrived at Dulles Airport outside Washington DC on Friday night, AP reported.

Earlier, at a three-hour court hearing in New York, all ten alleged suspects admitted to being unregistered Russian agents, telling the judge they knew it was illegal. The session was part of a plea bargain hammered out between Moscow and Washington.

According to accused Russian Anna Chapman’s attorney Robert Baum, his client left no room for doubt of her being guilty.

“She pled guilty, acknowledging that she committed a conspiracy to stay in the United States, to communicate at the direction or request of the Russian Federation without registering,” he said.

The group lived anonymous lives in America before being arrested in an FBI swoop. US agents claimed they had been on the tail of a Russian spy-ring for almost a decade. However, whatever the FBI was following, it had turned out to be a relatively low-key operation.

There were no charges of espionage made against any of the accused – just allegations of being unregistered agents. The more serious rap of money-laundering faced by most of the accused was dropped as part of the plea deal. Only three of the detained lived in America under their real names.

One of them, red-head femme fatale Anna Chapman, became the face of the story – which begs the question as to where the young ambitious entrepreneur will go.

Huge press interest in her is unlikely to go subside, but she is barred from making any money from it, due to the plea bargain.

“She was specifically required to sign an agreement that she would not profit from any publication of the story surrounding the circumstances of her arrest and her work as a foreign agent,” Baum said.

The court ordered that all ten defendants be deported immediately from the US. They are unlikely to ever be allowed back, other than through White House approval.

“They have the option to go anywhere where they please, once they get to Russia. Except the US – they cannot come back here,” said Genesis Peduto, attorney for another alleged Russian agent Mikhail Vasenkov, also known as Juan Lazaro.

The plea deal hammered out between Moscow and Washington included the release of four people serving lengthy jail sentences in Russia for espionage offences.

They include former Russian intelligence officers and a nuclear scientist – all accused of passing secret information to the West. They are to be exchanged for the ten released in New York – the first such exchange between Moscow and Washington in almost a quarter of a century.

The FBI says it had chased the defendants for over a decade. However, as soon as ten days after the arrests, the major scandal that exploded in world media headlines wraps us and becomes the shortest special agent story in history.

Former MI5 officer Annie Machon described a probable scenario to follow the Russian spies’ departure from the US.

“They will be put somewhere secure where they will have a chance to be debriefed, be questioned and also to be assessed to see whether perhaps they may have been turned and sent across to spy for the other side,” she said. “So, there will be a period of adjustment and questioning and suspicion. And if all is OK, no doubts they will be pensioned off.”

Former Soviet political dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who was swapped for the leader of the Chilean Communist Party in 1976 and is now residing in the UK, remembers the details of his swap.

“I learnt about the exchange in the plane from my mother. No one talked to me before, no one explained me anything,” he said. “I was taken from my jail and driven to Moscow where I stayed overnight. In the morning they took my clothes away and gave me, oddly enough, a very nice French suit which really made me worry because the prisoner is not supposed to be in civilian clothes – a tie, a silk shirt and things like that – and handcuffed me.”

“A couple of hours later I could hear the roar of engines, so I immediately guessed it was airport and then I pretty much knew what was going on, except an exchange. I knew that they were going to deport me,” Bukovsky added.

Exiled from America: relief for some, test of love for others

Expulsion from the United States will turn out differently for each member of the alleged Russian spy squad. While for some it comes as a relief, for others it has become devastating news.

Anna Chapman is allegedly planning to spend time with her family in Russia and then move back to Great Britain, where she has a second citizenship. However, the UK has been quick to make it known that this is not likely to happen.

The house where Peruvian journalist Vicky Pelaez lived with her husband of 18 years, Juan Lazaro, is now surrounded by journalists. Together, the couple had a 17-year-old son, and her older son from a previous marriage also lived with them. The two children have decided to stay in America.

Vicky Pelaez had never been to Russia before, and is said to have been the only one of the defendants crying in court when the decision was being announced.

Media crews for now continue to hunt for details outside the family’s home, which the parents have left, trying to get the children to talk by slipping notes under the doors.

The only non-Russian citizen among the deported, Vicky Pelaez, is said to have had no clue about her husband’s fake identity throughout the entire marriage.

“When they were finally brought together since they were arrested – for the first time – the first words out of her mouth were: What is your true name?” her attorney John Rodriguez said.

The Peruvian’s lawyer believes she had been serving no one but her husband.

“She conspired to help her husband, and her husband pled guilty to having been an unregistered agent of the Russian Federation. That makes her an agent through her husband,” he added.

When the scandal finally dies down, could love really conquer all?