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Russian spies plead guilty: the view from inside the courtroom

Many of the Russian spies were in prison garb. They were seated where a jury would normally sit, and their lawyers were crammed into the space in front of the judge.

Russian spy suspects are seen in this courtroom sketch during their appearance in Manhattan Federal Court in New York Thursday. Ten people pleaded being unregistered foreign agents for Russia while living undercover in the United States and agreed to be deported to Russia as part of a swap of imprisoned spies between the US and Russian governments.

Christine Cornell/Reuters

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The Russian spies are going home. Not home as in the little house in the suburbs. Home as in Mother Russia.

At a court hearing in New York, 10 defendants entered guilty pleas as unregistered foreign agents. This reporter was one of a limited number allowed in the courtroom.

The defendants admitted to communicating information to Russian handlers. As part of an agreement between the US government and Russian Federation, they were immediately sentenced by Judge Kimba Wood to “time served,” or a little more than a week in jail – although they will be expelled from the United States immediately.

As part of the agreement, a spy swap will take place: In return for the 10, the Russians have agreed to expel four people accused of spying for the West.

IN PICTURES: Top notorious spies

The arrest of the 10 spies came just after President Obama met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Washington. Yet it appears that the spies did not pass on any classified documents, and they were not charged with espionage. Even so, the arrest caused a chill in US-Russian relations.

Members of the Russian Consulate in New York were in the courtroom. One of the officials, who did not want his name used, said he was in the courtroom “to learn the same as [a reporter].” He said he didn’t know how the convicted spies will be treated when they return.

Yet it appears they may be treated well. A lawyer for Vicky Pelaez, addressing the judge, said the woman, who is actually Peruvian and is a journalist, had been promised a monthly stipend of $2,000 for life, visas so her children can visit her, and permission to travel to Peru.

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At the hearing, the defendants revealed Russian identities. Even going into the hearing, the US government did not know their true names. For example, “Cynthia and Richard Murphy,” who lived in the upscale community of Montclair, N.J., are actually Vladimir Guryev and Lydia Guryev.

The spies all admitted they had been in the US since about 1999. They apparently were an attempt by the Russians to learn information via cocktail parties or business contacts. In the initial complaint, the Justice Department detailed how the Russians had tried to get information from a financier, a scientist working at a lab making a bunker-busting nuclear bomb, and aides to politicians. The complaint detailed secret exchanges made at train stations.

At least one of the spies, Anna Chapman (apparently her real name), created a sensation by posting sultry photos of herself on the Internet.

But once they entered the courtroom, any spy glamour was gone. The defendants arrived in handcuffs. Many of them were in prison garb – tan smocks for the women with orange T-shirts underneath and blue smocks for the men. They were seated where a jury would normally sit, and their lawyers – one for each defendant – were crammed into the space in front of the Judge Wood.

Journalists lined up at least two hours before the trial to get seats. Most did not get in and ended up in an overflow courtroom to watch the proceedings on closed-circuit television.

Before the pleas were entered, Wood asked the defendants about their education. Almost all had graduated from a university. Mikhail Anatonoljevich, aka Juan Lazaro, said he had a PhD. Another individual, Andrey Bezrukov, aka Donald Howard Heathfield, said he had an MBA from Harvard.

After the trial, the lawyers representing the spies asked if they could see their clients one last time before their clients headed for the airport and the long flight back to Russia.

IN PICTURES: Top notorious spies

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