Ten Russian agents who infiltrated suburban America and acted as spies for Moscow headed back to Russia Thursday, just hours after a U.S. judge ordered their deportation as part of a swap between the United States and Russia.
The 10 prisoners, nine of them Russians, lived and worked under false names in American cities including Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. Several were married couples with children born and raised in the United States. Arraigned before federal Judge Kimba Wood in downtown New York Thursday, the five women and five men each pleaded guilty to charges of having failed to register as foreign agents.
Judge Wood sentenced them to time already served - all were arrested in late June - and to leave the U.S. permanently, unless authorized to return by federal authorities. Prosecutors said they would be on Russia-bound flights within hours. Russia reportedly agreed that the ten will then be free to travel or move to any other country, except the United States.
Robert Baum, a lawyer for suspect Anna Chapman, noted that his client had been in the United States for about six months, running her own real estate business. He said she had not passed information to Russia that was secret or received any payment.
"The only allegations against her was that she communicated with a Russian official through a laptop to laptop communication, without the government specifying the nature of the communications," he said.
Baum said Chapman was kept in solitary confinement after her arrest and allowed no visitors or phone calls, and he said that was a factor in her guilty plea.
"I can tell you it was a difficult decision for her, one that included consideration of the conditions of her detention, which were extremely harsh," he said.
A lawyer for a Peruvian-born defendant, Vicki Pelaez, said that she never knew that her husband of many years, who went by the name Juan Lazaro, was actually a Russian named Mikhail Vasenkov. Attorney John Rodriquez said that Pelaez acted at her husband's request when she carried papers to Peru that contained messages written in invisible ink.
"Supposedly he explained to her that something was written on it and that she should give it to someone who may have been a Russian federation official," he said.
Pelaez, a columnist for a Spanish-language newspaper in New York, will receive $2,000 a month for life from Russia and is expected to move back to Peru. No monetary arrangement for any of the other defendants was disclosed.
In exchange for the 10, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has pardoned four prisoners convicted of spying for the United States.
U.S. Justice Department officials say the four to be deported from Russia were jailed for alleged contacts with Western intelligence. They say three were convicted of treason and some of them are in poor health.