Mystery surrounds Swiss arrest of suspected Russian spy

The number of international organisations, multinational companies and scientific activities in Switzerland make it an attractive location for spies. © Keystone / Salvatore Di Nolfi

A suspected Russian agent was arrested and sentenced in Switzerland in January according to media reports. As details emerge about the case, the circumstances surrounding the conviction and eventual release remain mysterious.

This content was published on February 16, 2020 - 18:32

According to the German language paper SonntagsZeitungExternal link, which acquired a summary of the charges, police officers stopped a man in Geneva in July 2019 who had fake license plates and was traveling with six cell phones, a drone, a camera and a laptop.

After a few months, an investigation by the federal prosecutor concluded that the man was a Russian spy. In January, the prosecutor sentenced him to a six-month prison sentence for espionage, without a public trial. Because the man was charged in pre-trial detention, he was released.

The short investigation time and the light punishment raise suspicions that the prosecutor wanted to close the case as quickly and quietly as possible in order to brush aside a diplomatically sensitive matter.

According to the paper, the man was on a mission to spy on dissidents or oligarchs, who fell out of favor with the Kremlin. Several parts of the document are blacked out but the smartphone messages from the investigation indicate that the man was a low-level officer in the Russian foreign intelligence service SVR.

Neither the Swiss intelligence service and the federal prosecutor nor the federal police have commented on the case. The Russian embassy says it has no knowledge of the case.

The man denied working for Russian intelligence, stating that he was on a private mission. His defense attorney said that he was "not a spy and was wrongly sentenced". However, the prosecutor’s judgement was not contested.

Switzerland is known as a popular destination for Russian spies, but the Swiss media report indicates this is the first time in recent history that the Swiss judiciary has sentenced someone from Russian President Vladmir Putin’s ranks.

In 2018, a confidential intelligence report compiled for the Swiss government found that one in four Russian diplomats based in Switzerland is a spy. That same year, two Russian agents suspected of trying to spy on a Swiss laboratory were arrested in the Netherlands and expelled.

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