Igor Sutyagin and the price of freedom

The imprisonment of military researcher Igor Sutyagin for alleged espionage has long troubled Russian human rights campaigners, writes Zoya Svetova. He is now free, but only after agreeing to agree he was a spy. Those familiar with Russian prisons will understand why he acted as he did, but he faces a difficult task persuading others of his integrity.
Zoya Svetova
26 July 2010

Reflecting on the unusual exchange of ten Russian agents for four prisoners serving terms in Russian prisons, many local observers have been minded to recollect cold-war era swaps, when Soviet dissidents were openly exchanged for Soviet spies. It certainly seems an appropriate comparison with respect to one of the names on the list of Russian prisoners: Igor Sutyagin. An academic researcher specialising in military technology at the Institute for US and Canadian Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Sutyagin spent most of the last 11 years imprisoned in a maximum-security penal colony for alleged espionage. His was a case that for many symbolized the arbitrariness and political dependence of the prevailing legal system.


Igor Sutyagin: after 11 years in a penal colony, Sutyagin now finds himself in London as part of the recent spy-swap deal. Sutyagin denies he was ever a US spy.

Sutyagin received his 15-year sentence on 7 April 2004 in Moscow. The trial, which was never far from controversy, found him guilty of divulging classified information to a London-based consulting company named Alternative Futures, allegedly a front for US intelligence.

At the time, Sutyagin's lawyers and advocates argued there was no way the researcher could have disclosed classified information, for the simple fact that he had no access to state secrets. In both court and in interview, Sutyagin himself insisted that the only materials he presented to Alternative Futures was information he had obtained from open sources in the Russian and foreign press. He acknowledged that he had signed a contract with the consulting firm, but only for press monitoring reports on a select number of issues relating to strategic arms. In October 1999, he provided investigators of the Kaluga region Federal Security Service Directorate with full information about his meetings with two representatives of this company, Nadya Lokk and Shaun Kidd. Sutyagin saw nothing improper either in these meetings or his press monitoring reports: in no way did he consider that he was selling state secrets.

During the first three days of his questioning, conducted without legal representation, Sutyagin detailed all of his contacts and meetings with foreigners. As a result of the information gathered from this questioning, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) were compelled to change the scope of their original charge, which had first appeared in the 1998 book Strategic Nuclear Arms. The book was apparently written by a group of authors, and its contents were agreed with FSB agents.

Throughout the course of the year that followed, the Kaluga district court investigated the issue thoroughly, yet proved unable to render a verdict. At the close of December 2001, Judge Alexander Gusev sent the case back to prosecutors for additional investigation, writing in his ruling: "the wording of the presented charge ... is so non-specific that it becomes completely impossible to understand which particular information is supposed to undergo judicial scrutiny." The case was passed to the FSB investigation department in Moscow for further investigation. When it was sent back, just five of the original thirty charges remained.

Absurd charges

Anna Stavitskaya, a lawyer representing Sutyagin, has consistently underlined the absurdity of the prosecutors' charges. "The official charge claims Sutyagin disclosed secret information relating to 'possible future development of Russian-produced air-to-air missiles'", she says. "The problem is that, in his reports, Sutyagin clearly references any such material to open sources, which contain, word-for-word, the very information later decried by experts as classified. Prosecutors made specific mention of the PBB-AE missile, for example. We provided the court with a written testimony from the manufacturers of that missile, which stated that this technology was, from 1992, on open display in international air shows. It is quite bizarre to claim something to be secret when it has for many years been openly accessible to foreigners."


Prosecutors claimed Sutyagin disclosed classified information about the development of the MiG-29 fighter jet, but that information was already in the public domain

The charges also alleged that Sutyagin disclosed information about details of the production and military capabilities of the MiG-29 SMT jet fighter aircraft. Again, such data is on open access: this time in an interview with Mikhail Korzhuyev, MiG's then-senior designer at MiG, which was published in the aviation journal Vestnik vozdushnogo flota. The same jet was also presented at an air show in Zhukovsky. In other words, it is very difficult to understand how experts could have come to a conclusion that information about this jet was in some way secret.

The prosecution also failed to provide evidence for another important pillar of the case against Sutyagin, i.e. that employees of the consulting firm were, in fact, foreign spies. In the very first court hearing in Kaluga district, lawyers acting for Sutyagin asked a military expert whether it was not, in his view, unusual for so-called spies to allow their agent to discuss his work with relatives, to pose together in photographs, or to bind their relationship in a written contract. The expert replied that, no, bona-fide agents would never have operated in that way.

Jury games

On 3 November 2003, hearings began once again in the Moscow City Court. The Court had only been in session for just a few sittings, when officials suddenly announced a break in proceedings. Lawyers acting asked for Sutyagin asked to see their client in prison, but were denied that opportunity under the pretext of a medical quarantine (as transpired later, Sutyagin was not, in fact, ill). As soon as the quarantine was lifted, the judicial process was officially suspended. The Chairman of the Moscow City Court dissolved the jury and named a new presiding judge.

On 15 March 2004, a new jury was chosen in an extremely controversial process. Lawyers noted that an unusually low number of people took part in the selection. Several refused to accept an invitation; others were rejected by lawyers on grounds that they were former policemen or security service employees. The final composition of the jury had a majority of male jurors, which is itself extremely rare. But lawyers were most surprised at the large number of jurors who were industrialists and businessmen. Such people usually refuse to become members of the jury due to work commitments.

Journalists later tracked down the members of the first jury and discovered they were probably minded to exonerate Igor Sutyagin; it was certainly clear the majority were not yet convinced of his guilt. Several members of the second jury, meanwhile, had documented connections to Russian security services. One of them, Grigory Yakimishen, was actually a former employee of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. By some quirk of procedure, his name had appeared in the jury list; and in direct contravention of law, he was included in the jury determining Sutyagin's fate. Lawyers – and later journalists – managed to confirm that Yakimishen was a former employee of the Russian consulate in Poland, and among those who participated in the KGB recruitment of former Polish PM Józef Oleksy. Yakimishen was sent from Poland before the end of his contract.

Yakimishen did not disclose the fact of his former employment. He instead described his current position as the deputy director of a company called Parma Trading. Russian law explicitly forbids former employee of the security services to take part in legal proceedings of this sort.


Judge Marina Komarova (http://www.agentura.ru/)

The trial itself was conducted behind closed doors. The new trial judge, Judge Komarova, who had a long history of considering FSB-related cases, was entirely non-objective in the way she conducted proceedings. She denied lawyers the opportunity to cross-examine any experts and specialists whose judgements ran against the charges presented. Members of the jury were also asked several questions that did not relate to the charge. They were, for example, asked "Did Sutyagin disclose data to foreign citizens in exchange for money?" No mention was made as to what sort of data was being referred to here: from open or classified sources? Sutyagin, we remember, did not deny that he provided Alternative Futures with material obtained from open sources. Unsurprisingly, given the conduct of the trial, the jury returned a unanimous guilty verdict, with only four of the twelve finding a cause for leniency.

Judge Marina Komarova handed down a fifteen-year sentence. For the many years that followed, the "Sutyagin affair" came to serve as a symbol of arbitrary justice, jury manipulation and of a spymania that had gripped the heart of Russian government. Despite the arguments and protestations of Sutyagin's legal team, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the Moscow City Court.

The first political prisoner of the Putin-Medvedev epoch

In 2005, Amnesty International declared Igor Sutyagin a political prisoner – the first political prisoner of Putin’s era. A year earlier, in April 2004, Putin established new understandings on contact with foreigners, noting that such contacts would be under the most severe control. As he said on April 14 of that year, “if we see that, for example, the Minister of Foreign Affairs is keeping contact with representatives of foreign governments over and above that required by his professional duties, then he, as any other member of the government, MP, indeed as any other citizen of the Russian Federation, will be subjected to procedures as laid out in Russian Criminal Law. The FSB are ready to act.” After Sutyagin was pronounced guilty, the officers connected with investigating the case received new stars on their lapels.

At no point over just short of 11 years in prison did Igor Sutyagin acknowledge his supposed guilt.  On a number of occasions, Russian human rights campaigners asked the President to pardon him. Sutyagin himself applied to the president with such a request. In a letter that ran to many pages, the academic attempted to prove his innocence with arguments, evidence and expert opinion.

President Putin refused to pardon Sutyagin, citing Sutyagin's refusal to admit his guilt. (Both Vladmir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev have somewhat confused understandings of the idea of clemency. Nowhere in either the Russian constitution or in the Law of Criminal Procedure is it written one must admit guilt before being pardoned. In Russia, however, is not the law that rules supreme, but instead "understandings". And the current "understanding" is that the President will only afford mercy to signed-up, repentant sinners)

For the very same reason, Sutyagin was denied the possibility of early release. The Archangel District Court ruled that Sutyagin had not been suitably reformed by the harsh penal regime, and had not succeeded in atoning for his guilt. At the same time, the governor of the penal colony had actually given Sutyagin an excellent reference, commending his behaviour in several key respects. By law, Sutyagin should have been released; yet he was not.

A humanitarian release        

Not every fact is known about the circumstances of the recent "spy" exchange, but it has been reported that the US side instigated the release of Igor Sutyagin out of humanitarian considerations. Both Russian and US academics and human rights activists have led a spirited campaign for his release throughout the past decade. The US insist Sutyagin was not one of their agents.

Igor Sutyagin himself paid heavily for his release. When he was brought to Lefortovo prison in Moscow from the Archangel colony, he was told in no uncertain terms that acknowledging guilt was a precondition for freedom. If he refused to co-operate, the whole operation would be called off: Sutyagin would return to Archangel, his family would suffer, and Russian spies would be sentenced to many years' imprisonment in American prisons. Sutyagin had no choice: he signed an admission of guilt, and President Medvedev pardoned him.

Sutyagin faces an upward battle to prove his innocence. He will need to explain why he decided to admit "guilt", after almost eleven years of denying it. I fear the only people likely to believe him are those who know something about life in Russian prison.

Igor Sutyagin is currently in the UK, having received a residence permit from British authorities.

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