|Former lawmaker's aide Ekaterina Zatuliveter, 26, arrives at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission in London, Tuesday Nov. 29, 2011. A tribunal says Zatuliveter, who was accused of being a Russian spy, can stay in Britain. Zatuliveter was arrested in December on suspicion of using her job in the office of legislator Mike Hancock to pass information to Russian intelligence. (AP Photo/Gareth Fuller, PA)|
Russian woman accused of spying can stay in UK
LONDON—Immature, calculating, emotional and self-centered. But almost certainly not a Russian spy.
That was a special immigration tribunal's ruling Tuesday on the dramatic case of a young Russian woman accused by Britain of being a Russian agent after she had a long affair with a married British lawmaker.
The tribunal ruled that Ekaterina Zatuliveter -- a 26-year-old blonde accused of passing parliamentary secrets to Russian intelligence -- can remain in Britain because she does not pose a threat to national security.
The three-man tribunal -- including a former head of MI5, the UK's domestic intelligence agency -- rejected the government's claim that she used her charms to seduce Mike Hancock, a Liberal Democrat lawmaker serving on the sensitive Defense Committee.
Instead, they concluded, she was a young woman who was in love with a far older man who she believed might help her forge a new life in the West. The tribunal was swayed in part by her diary, which described her infatuation with Hancock, who is in his 60s, and her belief that if she had sex with him, he would help her complete her education and move from Russia to Europe.
Still, the tribunal chaired by Judge John Mitting conceded that it was possible they were being fooled by an extremely skilled agent sent from Russia with little love for Britain and the West. And the tribunal accepted the government's assertion that Hancock was a likely target for Russian intelligence.
"We cannot exclude the possibility that we have been gulled," the report states. "But, if we have been, it has been by a supremely competent and rigorously trained operative."
The report concludes that Zatuliveter's motives were made clear in her diary entries that describe the pros and cons of a possible sexual relationship with Hancock.
"To sleep with him -- no danger," she wrote in 2006 shortly after they met when Hancock was on a parliamentary trip to Russia. She ruminates on his suggestion that she move to Strasbourg, France, to continue their affair. "If all goes well, if I pass my exams well then I'll go to Strasbourg and, possibly, I'll get a very good chance in life, who knows."
Later she describes intimate feelings for Hancock and talks of him as her king.
The tribunal decided these were not the words of a trained secret agent who had been ordered to seduce a lawmaker. The panel said it accepted the authenticity of the diary, in part because the emotions described matched Zatuliveter's character at the time, which they described as "immature, calculating, emotional and self-centered."
The panel said the most likely explanation of her relationship with Hancock "is that, however odd it might seem, she fell for him."
The British government can still pursue the deportation case in a higher court, but no decision on whether to continue the attempt to deport has been made public.
Zatuliveter was arrested in December on suspicion of using her job in Hancock's office to pass information to Russian intelligence. Zatuliveter admitted they had a four-year affair but denied engaging in any espionage.
"I am very happy, incredible relief," Zatuliveter said after the ruling was announced. "My parents are ecstatic."
Her lawyer, Tess Gregory, said Zatuliveter wants to put the episode behind her.
The lawyer was critical of the British government's pursuit of Zatuliveter, saying the case "was built entirely on speculation, prejudice and conjecture."
Gregory said it should not have taken 12 months of costly legal proceedings to reach the decision announced Tuesday. The government had put Zatuliveter in the Kafkaesque position of trying to prove she was not a spy, the lawyer said.
"Our Security Service is supposed to be responsible for protecting us against serious threats to national security," she said. "It is therefore extremely worrying that they have chosen to waste their time, at great public expense, needlessly and unfairly pursuing an innocent young woman."
In comments that might have made the fictional character James Bond cry, she said Britain's secret service fell far short of the FBI in counterespionage.
Zatuliveter has not been charged with spying, but British authorities wanted to deport her as a threat to national security. Much of the evidence was heard in secret, so some of the details of the case against her have not been made public.
The Home Office released a statement that officials are "disappointed" by the ruling and that they stand by the decision to seek her removal.
"The court ruled that there were ample grounds for suspicion, we are therefore very disappointed by the court's judgment and stand by our decision to pursue deportation on national security grounds," the statement said.
Hancock has stepped down from the Defense Committee but has not commented publicly on the allegations.