Abducted Estonian official Eston Kohver has been exchanged for Aleksei Dressen, a former Estonian Internal Security Service (ISS) employee imprisoned in Estonia for espionage for Russia.
Interior Minister Hanno Pevkur confirmed Kohver is back in Estonia. Pevkur said Kohver, who spent nearly 13 months in Russian prisons, will first be reunited with his family.
The ministry and the ISS held a press conference in Tartu, attended by Pevkur, ISS chief Arnold Sinisalu, and Kohver himself. A gallery of the event is available here.
PM Taavi Rõivas, who turns 36 today, said the phone call from Pevkur was the best birthday present he could have imagined.
According to Interfax, which broke the news, the prisoners were swapped at the Russian-Estonian border in southeastern Estonia. The exchange took place on a bridge across the Piusa river. Two border checkpoints were closed during the procedure.
Kohver, and ISS employee, was abducted from Estonian territory on September 5, 2014, while investigating cross-border crime. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison on August 19 for alleged espionage, carrying illegal firearms and crossing the border illegally.
Estonia said the entire trial was a farce and Kohver was never in Russia, while Russia said he was captured near Pskov, near the Estonian border.
Dressen was sentenced by Estonian authorities to 16 years in 2012 for treason and handing Russia sensitive information. Dressen's wife, who received a suspended sentence in 2012 for aiding her husband, arrived in Russia earlier, Interfax reported. ISS said they cannot confirm this, as she has repeatedly moved between the two countries.
"I'm happy to be home"
Kohver gave a short statement at the press conference.
He said he is very happy to be home and thanked people who helped to free him and supported him while in prison. But foremost he wished to thank those who helped his family survive this difficult time.
Interior Miniter Pevkur said the prisoner swap was the result of prolonger negotiations but refused to comment on details. He did confirm that both he and ISS chief Sinisalu were involved. Both men said that although Estonia's international partners supported the effort, no other parties were involved in the negotiations.
Pevkur used the opportunity to thank all the participants, supporters and Kohver himself for his strenght.
Sinisalu also thanked the media for being understanding and expressed hope that if Kohver's family was left in peace before, they will not be disturbed now.
Editor: J.M. Laats, M. Oll