MOSCOW — Special riot police beefed up security around Lefortovo prison Thursday and a gaggle of TV cameras and photographers jostled for the best position as the world braced for what could be largest spy swap since the Cold War.
A convoy of armored vehicles arrived in the morning at the prison, thought to be the central gathering point for people convicted of spying for the West, including nuclear researcher Igor Sutyagin, serving a 14-year sentence for spying for the United States.
Sutyagin’s brother and lawyer say he was transferred to Lefortovo earlier this week to take part in the swap and could be flown out to freedom as early as Thursday. They said Sutyagin saw a list of 11 prisoners in Russia who are being traded for 10 people arrested in the United States for being unregistered Russian agents.
In New York, a federal court was to decide the fate of those 10 suspects later Thursday at one hearing.
Officials in neither country would confirm an exchange was planned. But the machinations — including a meeting in Washington between U.S. officials and the Russian ambassador on Wednesday — had all the hallmarks as the two former Cold War antagonists moved to tamp down tensions stirred up by the U.S. arrests.
“A swap seems very much on the cards. There is political will on both sides, and actually by even moving it as far as they have, Moscow has de facto acknowledged that these guys were spies,” intelligence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said.
Five suspects charged with spying in the U.S. were hurriedly ordered to New York on Wednesday, joining five others already behind bars there, after Sutyagin, a Russian arms-control researcher, spilled the news of the swap after being transferred to Moscow from his forlorn penal colony near the Arctic Circle.
Dmitry Sutyagin said his brother was told he was among a dozen convicted spies to be exchanged for Russians arrested by the FBI. He said his brother could be sent to Vienna, then onto London, as early as Thursday.
A spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron would not confirm or deny a possible US-Russian spy swap taking place in London. “This is primarily an issue for the U.S. authorities,” spokesman Steve Field said.
But defense lawyers in Moscow and New York have expressed confidence that their clients’ fates would be settled very soon.
In a federal indictment unsealed Wednesday, the ten suspects in New York and an 11th person, who was released on bail by a court in Cyprus and is now a fugitive, were formally charged.
The indictment charged all with conspiring to act as secret agents and charged nine of them with conspiracy to commit money laundering. It demanded that those accused of money laundering return any assets used in the offense.
Attorney Robert Baum, who represents defendant Anna Chapman, said the case might be settled when she and the other nine people arrested in the United States appear Thursday for arraignment on the indictment, raising the possibility of guilty pleas to the lowest charges and deportation from the U.S..
“Of certain events tomorrow that might occur, the fact the indictment is minimal makes perfect sense. This is a crazy situation,” said Robert J. Krakow, an attorney for defendant Juan Lazaro.
Prosecutors released a copy of the indictment as federal judges in Boston and Alexandria, Virginia, signed orders directing that five defendants arrested in Massachusetts and Virginia be transferred to New York. All were charged in Manhattan.
The defendants were accused of living seemingly ordinary lives in America while they acted as unregistered agents for the Russian government, sending secret messages and carrying out orders they received from their Russian contacts.
All have remained in custody except for a man identified as Christopher R. Metsos, the 11th suspect who is charged with being the spy ring’s paymaster. Metsos, traveling on a forged Canadian passport, jumped bail last week after being arrested in Cyprus.
U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood in New York signed an order Wednesday requiring that defendant Vicky Pelaez, Lazaro’s wife, remain detained until the judge can hear an appeal Friday by the U.S. government of a $250,000 bail package approved last week. Pelaez is a U.S. citizen.
Sutyagin, who worked as an arms control and military analyst at the Moscow-based U.S.A. and Canada Institute, a think tank, was arrested in 1999 and convicted in 2004 on charges of passing information on nuclear submarines and other weapons to a British company that investigators claimed was a CIA cover. Sutyagin has all along denied that he was spying, saying the information he provided was available from open sources.
His case was one of several incidents of Russian academics and scientists being targeted by Russia’s Federal Security Service and accused of misusing classified information, revealing state secrets or, in some cases, espionage.
AP writers Misha Japaridze, Vladimir Isachenkov, Jim Heintz and Khristina Narizhnaya in Moscow, Calvin Woodward, Pete Yost and Matt Lee in Washington, Matt Barakat in Alexandria, Va., Denise Lavoie in Boston, Larry Neumeister and Tom Hays in New York, and David Stringer in London contributed to this report.