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Russia: Mysterious TV Interview Leads To Suspension Of Pope Trial

  • Sophie Lambroschini

For the second time this week, the espionage trial of U.S. businessman Edmund Pope in Moscow has been delayed because of the defendant's severe illness. Today's suspension came after a mysterious trial-related event in which a woman claiming to be the wife of the prosecution's main witness accused officials of putting pressure on her husband.

Moscow, 3 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Edmund Pope suffers from a rare form of bone cancer, which Russian doctors twice this week have found debilitating enough to recommend suspending the trial. Pope's lawyer, Pavel Astakhov, said today that the legal proceedings are due to resume tomorrow, but he is unsure whether Pope's poor health will allow him to attend.

Yesterday's (Thursday) session of the trial was dominated by an event that took place outside the court room the evening before (Wednesday). A woman identifying herself as Galina Babkina, the wife of Anatoly Babkin -- the Russian scientist accused of selling Pope confidential documents on a new high-speed underwater torpedo -- told NTV that her husband was innocent.

Dressed in an overcoat and a felt hat slightly pulled over her eyes, the woman said Babkin was ready to testify in court, but that the Federal Security Services, or FSB, had called him in for an examination to show that he cannot testify on health grounds. She implied that Babkin was being hindered from proclaiming his innocence at the trial, saying: "They [that is, the FSB] find that he can't go to court on health grounds, but that he can be held for several hours at the FSB and in the hospital."

In court yesterday, chief prosecutor Oleg Plotnikov called the woman interviewed as Babkina an impostor. According to one report (Interfax), Plotnikov said that Babkin's wife "has another name and does not live in Moscow."

Even Astakhov, Pope's lawyer, said that he himself did not know whether the mysterious woman is or is not Babkin's wife. But he told our corespondent that her identity should have been checked by the court.

"I can't say if it's really her because I didn't check her [identity], her passport. I never saw her in real life, only on television. The judges refused my request [Thursday] to call in this woman who calls herself the wife of Professor Babkin. They even refused to include the video [of her interview as a trial document] to show that the event did take place -- that a woman calling herself the wife of Professor Babkin claimed that Babkin is being exposed to heavy pressure."

The FSB has not questioned that the woman who made the remarks was actually Galina Babkina, but it is saying that Babkin cannot appear in court for health reasons. At the same time, FSB spokesman Aleksandr Zdanovich says that the charges originally made against Babkin -- but later withdrawn for "health reasons" -- could be reinstated, and that's why he was given a medical exam.

According to Astakhov, Babkin's appearance in court is crucial to the prosecution's case. And until this week, Babkin had been expected to testify as a prosecution witness.

The FSB says that Pope used his businessman status as a cover for spying and arrested him along with Anatoly Babkin seven months ago (April 5). Pope, a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer, was employed by a private company under a contract with Pennsylvania State University's Applied Research Laboratory and was in negotiations with Babkin over the acquisition of documents concerning the new torpedo.

Pope has denied the spying charges. His lawyer Astakhov acknowledges that Pope did try to buy information on the torpedo, but says that the businessman did not seek to acquire any data illegally. Astakhov 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.

But yesterday, Yevegeny Sherkhidzhanov, another Russian scientist who helped build the new torpedo, appeared to support the prosecution's charge that Pope sought to buy classified information. Sherkhidzhanov told journalists that he had been approached by Pope early this year.

"[I] had contacts with Mr. Pope, a representative of Penn[sylvania] State University, regarding his interest in high-speed underwater propulsion. Is the information secret? Not secret? We didn't hand over to him any secrets we had. But the technology is unique, the only one of its kind until now, and costs a significant amount of money."

NTV quoted Sherkhidzhanov also as saying that some of the information requested by Pope was confidential. Sherkhidzhanov said that he had therefore addressed Pope to the official state company for arms sales [Rosvooruzhenie].

The Pope trial is taking place behind closed doors, and the public has been largely dependent on the defense for information. Astakhov said last week that the court was trying to limit journalists' access to information, He said that the prosecution demanded that witnesses be brought into the courtroom through a back door. Astakhov also said that Judge Nina Barkova -- who will alone decide Pope's fate -- has accused him of "leaking information" to the media.

If convicted, Pope could be sentenced to up to 20 years in jail. Two months ago, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted that Pope might eventually be released -- but only after the trial is concluded.

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