The case of the Russian ‘spy’

Igor Sutyagin, the Russian nuclear researcher sentenced to 15 years for espionage, found himself at the centre of a spy-swap deal in 2010, writes Olga Shvarova.

The case

Igor Sutyagin, a nuclear researcher at the Institute for US and Canadian Studies in Moscow, was arrested in October 1999. He compiled information on military and defence issues in Russia, while working as a private consultant for the UK-based Alternative Futures consultancy. He was found guilty in 2004 of “high treason by means of espionage” and was sentenced to 15 years in a high security penal colony. The case against him was initiated by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). Sutyagin has always testified that he had no access to classified information but compiled his reports from public sources.

Amnesty International highlighted Sutyagin’s case in connection with its concerns about freedom of expression and the fairness of trials in Russia. Due to the conduct of the trial and the lengthy sentence imposed, a number of local and international human rights NGOs, in addition to Amnesty, raised concerns that the charges were politically motivated. In 2010, Sutyagin was sent to Britain as one of the convicted spies Russia exchanged for ten individuals (including Anna Chapman) alleged by the US to be Russian spies. Sutyagin’s mother told Amnesty that he opposed this deal but was coerced into accepting it.

Author opinion

Igor Sutyagin was convicted for a crime he did not commit. He was accused of treason against the state under the Article 275 of the Criminal Code of Russia for "espionage, disclosure of state secrets, or any other assistance rendered to a foreign State, a foreign organisation, or their representatives in hostile activities to the detriment of the external security of the Russian Federation, committed by a citizen of the Russian Federation". He was sentenced to 15 years, of which he served 11. What is remarkable about Sutyagin’s case is the fact that there was no coherent proof of his espionage activity, or his disclosure of any state secrets that can justify the imprisonment and the verdict as stated. It is true that Sutyagin collated specific information on Russian military forces for a shady company called Alternative Futures, which long since went below the radar. It is true that he was paid for his services. But it is also true that though the information Sutyagin was providing in his “consultancy reports” was concerned with Russia’s military potential at the time, all the facts collated for these reports were taken from the mass media sources freely available to the public in newspapers and magazines, published both in Russia and abroad. Sutyagin himself, his colleagues and his research institution never had security clearance, which means no access to the classified information.

Sutyagin, a scientist with a distinguished career in Russia, the head of a department in a state-owned research institution, could not have been unaware of the perils of his “consulting” activity. To play games with any sort of military information in Russia under the watchful eye of the FSB is to play with fire, while standing with one foot in the puddle of petrol. What followed was no surprise to anyone familiar with Russian history of the 20th century – to convict a man in Russia in the late 90s could sadly still be an exercise in bureaucracy rather then an implementation of law. It could be argued that Sutyagin’s activity was questionable from the ethical point of view but it was not, in any possible case, an act of espionage or a disclosure of state secrets, and should not have been punished as such.

- Olga Shvarova

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Comments (1)

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  1. If he really resorted this treachery, he deserves this punishment. Russia is very tough when it comes to espionage. We saw the examples in the past as a tough way. For example Alexander Litvenko.

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