The wife of an Italian navy captain accused of spying for Russia has said that he was in serious financial difficulties.
Walter Biot himself has refused to answer questions from an investigating judge, but his wife spoke to the media on his behalf.
“He was just desperate,” she said.
The 54 year old was arrested in a car park on the southern fringes of Rome on Tuesday, accused of exchanging secrets for thousands of euros in cash.
In an interview with the Corriere della Sera newspaper, his wife Claudia Carbonara was adamant “he gave the minimum he could to the Russians” but was unable to cope with the financial strains of living on a monthly salary of €3,000 (£2,500; $3,500).
She insisted he would do nothing to harm Italy.
With four children and four dogs and a €268,000 mortgage on the family home in Pomezia, a few minutes’ drive to the south of Rome, she said her husband did not have enough money to raise a family.
“Because of Covid we have become impoverished, you know?” said Ms Carbonara, who is a psychotherapist.
The frigate captain who works for Italy’s defence staff is alleged to have handed over a USB drive in exchange for €5,000 when special forces military police swooped on him and an unidentified Russian military attache early on Tuesday evening.
Mr Biot refused to answer questions at Thursday’s preliminary hearing as he was “dazed and disoriented but ready to clarify my position”. The investigating judge ruled he should remain in custody at Regina Coeli prison in Rome.
According to the custodial warrant, 181 photos of classified documents were found on the USB stick, including nine identified as highly confidential and another 47 secret Nato documents.
If found guilty he could face at least 15 years in jail.
Flight to Moscow
Italy immediately expelled two Russian embassy officials on Wednesday, while Russia expressed its regret and hoped the incident would not harm the “very positive and constructive nature” of the two countries’ relations.
According to Italy’s Nova news agency, the two Russian officials flew back to Moscow on Thursday and were named as Dmitry Ostroukhov and Alexei Nemudrov. Mr Ostroukhov was reportedly caught red-handed in the car park but not detained because of his diplomatic immunity.
Asked by the Corriere reporter whether the family’s financial problems justified selling secrets to Russia, Ms Carbonara said that if he had discussed the situation with her she would have tried to dissuade him. “Even if he did what he did, I’m sure he’d have considered carefully so as not to harm the country’s national interest,” she is reported as saying.
After spending years working on ships in the Italian Navy, Walter Biot moved to the navy’s general staff and for the past five years served in the office of the Chief of the Defence Staff. He faces accusations that he handed over screenshots of secret documents from his computer.
Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio has condemned the case as an “extremely serious hostile act”.
“My husband did not want to screw the country, if you mind my language.”
Italy is one of the more Russia-friendly states in the European Union, says BBC Rome correspondent Mark Lowen. The espionage case will add to concerns that Italy has become something of a back door for illicit Russian activity in the EU.
Italy is a member of Nato as well, and some reports suggested that some of the material handed over related to the Western military alliance.