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2019.10.17 17:00

Secrecy shrouds 'unprecedented' spy swap between Russia and Lithuania

LRT.lt, LRT RADIJAS2019.10.17 17:00

Following negotiations lasting several years, Lithuania and Russia has agreed on a spy swap, according to the chief editor at Baltic News Service, Vaidotas Beniušis, who broke the story in Lithuania on Wednesday. Basing the information on well-informed sources, Beniušis said the two countries found an agreement on a five-person swap, including a Norwegian citizen.

“This touches three countries,” Beniušis told LRT RADIO. “Russia would receive two persons, including Nikolai Filipchenko, arrested in Lithuania in 2015.”

Lithuanian officials have named Filipchenko as a cadre at the Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB. According to Beniušis, Filipchenko was arrested on a train in 2015, transiting from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad through Lithuania to Belarus.

“Filipchenko has been sentenced to ten years in prison and is currently serving out his sentence in Vilnius,” said Beniušis.

“He is definitely a high ranking officer. According to Lithuanian state intelligence, it was the first time a Russian FSB cadre was detained in Lithuania.”

According to Beniušis, Filipchenko had sought to recruit officers from Lithuania's VIP Protection Department to bug the office and home of the then President Dalia Grybauskaitė. There were no comments on that information following the court ruling.

“How true were the allegations, we don’t know – following the court’s decision, no other details surrounding the concrete actions were released,” said Beniušis.

The only detail revealed to the public was that Filipchenko used forged documents to conceal his identity.

“Two more persons are Lithuanian citizens imprisoned in Russia. One of them has a dual nationality, and Moscow claims that they worked for the Lithuanian military intelligence,” said Beniušis, but “neither the Lithuanian intelligence, nor other officials, have ever commented on the potential links [between Lithuanian intelligence] and the two persons.”

The third person is a Norwegian citizen, sentenced in Russia to 14 years in prison for espionage, who seems to be part of the swap deal, according to Beniušis.

Lithuania does not currently have laws that would allow the exchange to take place. “It’s clear that in Lithuania it’s a [new] precedent,” said Beniušis, “but other countries can issue pardons and also have bilateral agreements.”

Both mechanisms exist in Lithuania, and Vilnius will most likely activate pardon laws, which have never been applied in the country before.

“Lithuanian criminal code allows Lithuanian president to issue pardons to any person without detalising the request for pardon,” said Beniušis. “This has never been applied to any swap involving alleged or real spies and therefore, the lawyers have interpreted the law differently.”

“Discussions arose whether the current law is enough, or whether there should be a clear point [on cases involving] foreign states in espionage cases.”

The law amendments were discussed in the Lithuanian parliament, Seimas, on Thursday. The changes would allow applying a presidential pardon if Lithuania reaches an agreement with a foreign country on the return of a Lithuanian citizen persecuted for acting in Lithuania's state security interests.

Arvydas Anušauskas, a Lithuanian historian and member of the Security and Defence Committee at the Lithuanian parliament, said the president can issue pardons at his own discretion.

However, it’s questionable “whether Lithuania can take responsibility by admitting that Lithuanian citizens sentenced [in other countries] were definitely following the orders of our institutions,” Anušauskas told LRT RADIO.

“They could be sentenced for other reasons, especially when we’re talking about authoritarian or totalitarian states,” he added.

According to Beniušis, there have been previous spy swaps in Lithuanian history, but “they all took place before 1940” and the Soviet occupation.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters in Moscow on Thursday that she has "no information on this issue”.

“It all reminds of some sort of insinuations,” she added.