MOSCOW (AFP) – A Russian court on Monday began hearing the case of a former top secret service agent accused of treason and defecting after he blew the cover on a sleeper spy ring in the United States last year.
Alexander Poteyev, who is being tried in absentia and is believed to be in the United States, could be handed a jail term of up to 20 years in the trial at the Moscow district military court.
The case has been classified as top secret. Hearings are closed to the public and minimal information is distributed to Russian official news agencies.
Poteyev is charged with tipping off Washington about a ring of 10 Russian spies, including the notorious red-haired 'femme fatale' Anna Chapman, who were deported last year in the biggest post-Cold War spy scandal. The revelation caused huge embarassment for Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).
"The court has started examining the case against the SVR officer Colonel Alexander Poteyev," court spokeswoman Lyudmila Klimenko told the RIA Novosti news agency, adding: "The case is being heard by a panel of judges."
The court has appointed a defence lawyer and is due to cross-examine witnesses and examine other evidence in the trial, Klimenko said, refusing to give further details.
A high-ranking SVR source told the Izvestia newspaper earlier this month the service believed a cash payment of around $20,000-30,000 (14,000-20,000 euros) had lured Poteyev into betraying the spies.
"He sold himself in the most banal way. Money and nothing other than money," said the unnamed source.
"Today we don't use the word traitor much but Poteyev is a real traitor. Before, such people were shot dead and rightly so," added the source.
Poteyev had been working in Moscow as the deputy head of the US department of the SVR's Directorate C, which places sleeper agents in foreign countries who try to pass themselves off as locals.
He fled Russia just before the SVR identified his involvement. His family was already living abroad, prompting questions over why he was not under suspicion sooner.