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Russia: U.S. Businessman's Spy Trial Opens In Moscow

  • Sophie Lambroschini

A U.S. businessman accused of spying in Russia went on trial in Moscow today. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports on the case, one of the rare instances in which a U.S. citizen has been tried for espionage in Russia in recent years.

Moscow, 18 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The espionage trial of U.S. businessman Edmund Pope got underway behind closed doors. At a pre-trial hearing today, Judge Nina Barkova allowed a recess for Pope and his lawyer to study the Russian criminal-procedure code. The trial will resume on Friday.

Pope's fate will be determined solely by Barkova. If convicted, he is subject to a sentence of from 10 to 20 years in jail. Pope himself will follow the proceedings inside the steel cage traditionally reserved for those accused of crimes in Russian courtrooms.

Pope was arrested six months ago (April 5) by Russia's Federal Security Service, or FSB. He was charged with seeking to buy secret technical data on a new high-speed Russian torpedo from Anatoly Babkin, a Russian scientist. Pope, who suffers from bone cancer, has been in prison ever since.

The FSB says that the 53-year-old Pope used his businessman status as a cover for spying. Pope, a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer, was employed by a private company under a contract with Pennsylvania State University.

Pope has pleaded not guilty to the charges. His lawyer, Pavel Astakhov, acknowledges that he did try to buy information on the torpedo, but says that Pope did not seek to acquire any data illegally. He argues that espionage can only be proven in Russia if it is demonstrated that the accused knew that the information he was buying was secret.

Astakhov says he will seek to show that Pope acquired the data in good faith, believing the information was not secret. He told our correspondent that Pope knew how delicate such matters are and did his best to avoid any suggestion of illegality:

"He [Pope] never acquired documents marked 'secret.' He always wrote up contracts when he acquired technologies or plans. He always checked whether -- God forbid! -- there was any secret material in the documents. He always counted on the honesty -- and had the right to do so -- of the other party that gave him these documents for money -- for quite a substantial sum."

Astakhov points out, too, that Pope received a certificate from the institute where Babkin worked attesting that the data the American purchased was not secret. But, he allows, it was a group of scientists from Bakbin's scientific institute who prepared the document.

The lawyer admits that Pope's defense will be a difficult one because the prosecution's chief witness is Babkin himself. The Russian scientist was initially accused of divulging state secrets, but the charges were later suspended for what were described as "reasons of health." Astakhov says of Babkin:

"The task given to [Babkin] is to appear as the prosecution's main witness. It is specifically on his statements that the accusations against Pope will be built. It will be important what his testimony at the hearing will be. If, at the hearing, he claims that he really did give [Pope] secret documents, we will be in a very difficult situation."

So far, every request Pope has made of the court has been denied, including several appeals on health grounds. Pope's request for a trial by jury was rejected, and he has been allowed to see his wife only once. Last month (Sept 19), a Russian court rejected an appeal to release him under house arrest pending trial, after doctors employed by the FSB said that he was fit to stand trial. U.S. doctors have not been allowed to examine Pope.

The Pope case has created tensions between Moscow and Washington. U.S. officials have said several times that there is no evidence that Pope broke the law. But Russian officials called their statements attempts to pressure the Russian judiciary.

This month, the posting of an U.S. consular warning clearly discouraging American citizens from business dealings in the military-industrial sphere has evoked new Russian protests. The warning stressed that normal U.S. business practices are often considered illegal in Russia, thereby highlighting the wider context of the Pope case -- the different line drawn in each country between commercial dealings and espionage.

In recent weeks, Russian security services have called for stepping up the fight against foreign industrial espionage, which they claim has increased over the past years.

The Pope case also moved the U.S. House of Representatives last week (Oct 10) to call on President Bill Clinton to consider suspending financial aid to Russia if Moscow does not release Pope. In a non-binding resolution, the house said that Pope traveled to Russia "to purchase commercially advertised underwater propulsion technology, as stated in his visa approved by the [Russian government]."

Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the trial must take place, but hinted at an eventual release. In an appearance on U.S. television (CNN's "Larry King Live"), Putin said: "[After the trial,] in the spirit of the good relationship between our two countries, we will see what we can do."