ROME (Reuters) - An Italian navy captain caught allegedly passing secret documents to a Russian military attache in return for cash was hard-up and struggling to provide for his four children, his wife has told an Italian newspaper.
Walter Biot, 54, was arrested on Tuesday in a Rome carpark moments after he was seen receiving 5,000 euros ($5,900) from the Russian official in return for information contained on a USB key, a police source said.
Italy, which has traditionally enjoyed better relations with Moscow than many other Western states, immediately expelled two Russian diplomats in retaliation and denounced the alleged espionage as a "hostile act".
The Russian foreign ministry was quoted as saying on Wednesday that it regretted the expulsions, but that they did not threaten bilateral relations.
Biot is in custody and faces a minimum 15 years in prison if found guilty of military espionage. He went before a magistrate on Thursday and declined to answer questions, his lawyer Roberto De Vita said.
"He said he was dazed and disoriented, but ready to clarify his position. He asked for time to collect his thoughts," De Vita said. The court confirmed the custody order and declined a request for Biot to be held under house arrest.
Biot's wife, Claudia Carbonara, told Corriere della Sera newspaper that she knew nothing of what had happened, but also said that Biot had not handed over anything compromising, just "the minimum he could give".
"He is not stupid or irresponsible. He was just desperate," she was quoted as saying.
Carbonara, a psychotherapist, said their large family was in financial difficulty and could not make ends meet on his salary of 3,000 euros a month, with expenses including 1,200 euros a month on their mortgage.
Contacted by Reuters, Carbonara declined to comment.
Other newspapers reported that Carbonara had struggled to work as a result of coronavirus lockdowns over the past year.
Biot has the rank of a frigate captain and had had a desk job since 2010. He was currently working at the defense ministry department tasked with developing national security policy.
The Russian official who was seized on Tuesday had diplomatic immunity so could not be held.
He and a colleague, who both worked in the military attache's office at the Russian embassy in Rome, flew back to Moscow on Thursday, a diplomatic source said.
The Italian media named them as Dmitry Ostroukhov and Alexei Nemudrov. Russian authorities have not released their names.
Italy has relatively good ties with Moscow, and has been at the forefront of efforts to try to end international sanctions against Russia. Looking to show goodwill, Russia last year sent military doctors and medical equipment to help Italy battle an initial outbreak of coronavirus.
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(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Additional reporting by Domenico Lusi in Rome and Andrew Osborn in Moscow; Editing by Frances Kerry)