MOSCOW – A former senior Russian intelligence officer was convicted in absentia Monday of betraying a ring of 10 Russian spies in the United States.
The Moscow District Military Court found Col. Alexander Poteyev guilty of high treason and desertion and sentenced him to 25 years in prison after a trial that was closed to the public.
Russian news agencies cited the court's verdict as saying that Poteyev fled to the United States shortly before U.S. authorities announced the spy bust last summer, leaving his wife behind.
Anna Chapman and her fellow deep-cover agents had testified during the trial that only Poteyev could have provided the information that led to their arrest last year, according to the excerpts of the verdict carried by Russian newswires. They were deported in exchange for four suspected Western agents who had been imprisoned in Russia. It was the biggest spy swap since the Cold War.
The court said that the 59-year-old Poteyev had overseen the Russian sleeper agents in the U.S. as a deputy head of the "S" department of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service.
Chapman, the pinup girl for the agents, has testified that she was caught after an undercover U.S. agent contacted her using a code that only Poteyev and her personal handler knew, Russian news reports quoted the verdict as saying. She said she immediately felt that something was wrong and called her handler in Moscow who confirmed her suspicions. Chapman and others were arrested shortly after.
RIA Novosti news also quoted the testimony of other agents who confirmed that only Poteyev had access to the sensitive information that allowed the U.S. authorities to apprehend them.
The ITAR-Tass and Interfax news agencies quoted the verdict as saying that Poteyev had fled to Belarus and then move on to Germany and, finally, the United States using a passport belonging to another person.
It said that Poteyev was in such a hurry to leave the country that he rushed out of a business meeting at the intelligence headquarters, Interfax reported.
According to the verdict, he sent a farewell message to his wife that was cited by Interfax: "Mary, try to take it calmly. I'm leaving not for some time, but forever. I didn't want to, but I had to. I will start my life from scratch and will try to help the children."
The judge said that the U.S. authorities hadn't responded to a Russian official request for information about Poteyev's whereabouts.
The court also stripped Poteyev of his colonel's rank and state medals.
Poteyev's court-appointed lawyer, Andrei Kucherov, said he would appeal the sentence. He said that Poteyev's wife believes he's innocent and wants to join him in the United States, RIA Novosti reported.
The Russian spies were given a hero's welcome when they returned home last July, and President Dmitry Medvedev bestowed them with the nation's highest awards in October.
Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a 16-year KGB veteran, met with the spies and sang patriotic songs with them to celebrate their return.