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Russia: Alleged U.S. Spy's Defense More Optimistic About Acquittal

  • Sophie Lambroschini

The espionage trial of U.S. businessman Edmond Pope resumed today in Moscow with the defense in a more optimistic frame of mind. On Friday, a key prosecution witness retracted earlier testimony that Pope had sought illegally to purchase classified information from him. Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini brings us up to date.

Moscow, 13 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Behind closed doors in a Moscow city courtroom today, U.S. businessman Edmond Pope's trial on spying charges resumed with the defense in a slightly more upbeat mood. Pope's lawyer, Pavel Astakhov, was encouraged when the prosecution's main witness -- Russian scientist Anatoly Babkin -- late last week (Nov 10) retracted earlier testimony that Pope had sought illegally to purchase classified information from him.

Today, the court was expected to hear several experts assess whether the documents concerning a new Russian high-speed underwater torpedo that Pope had sought to acquire from Babkin were confidential or not. Astakhov said he would insist that what he called "independent" experts be allowed to attend the testimony of the court-appointed experts and that the documents presented as evidence be translated into English.

Astakhov today again strongly criticized the prosecution and the court for not having translated all relevant documents into English, which he says is a violation of Russian law.

"Today, a precedent was set whereby [foreign countries] can behave toward our citizens as we behave with foreign citizens. Imagine a Russian citizen who doesn't understand the language in which legal proceedings are being held in a foreign language, in [say] Turkey. He is called in front of a court and not a single document is given to him in Russian -- all is in Turkish."

The defense maintains that the information Pope was seeking to acquire was public and can be found in specialized Russian books. But the prosecution will try to prove that Pope also tried to acquire data relevant to the new torpedo's special fuel composition -- considered top-secret information.

The court-appointed experts' assessments came after Babkin -- whom the prosecution alleges tried to sell Pope secret documents -- changed his testimony on Friday. Earlier, defense lawyer Astakhov had said that Babkin's admission or denial of "a secret deal" with Pope would be critical to the defendant's chances of being acquitted.

Russia's Federal Security Service, or FSB, arrested both Pope and Babkin seven months ago. The FSB says that the 53-year-old Pope, a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer, used his businessman status as a cover for spying. Pope 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 relevant to the new torpedo. Babkin was also charged with espionage, but the charges were suspended "for health reasons."

According to Astakhov, Babkin said in court Friday that he had never given Pope secret documents, personally never taken money from him, or ever been alone with the businessman. Babkin claimed that the testimony he had given several months earlier -- virtually admitting spying -- had been given under pressure while he was suffering cardiac problems. Babkin suffered a heart attack only a few days after giving his initial testimony.

The prosecution says that Babkin retracted only part of his testimony. Chief Prosecutor Oleg Plotnikov told a Russian news agency (Interfax) that Babkin had specifically retracted the fact that "he knew Pope was an agent."

Babkin was questioned for five hours Friday, after which he quickly left the courthouse without speaking directly to journalists. His court appearance following an interview by his wife on Russia's private NTV television two weeks ago. She said that her husband was being kept from testifying in court by the FSB, Russia's domestic security service. After the TV interview, Astakhov presented the court with Babkin's written retraction of his earlier testimony, but the document was rejected by the judge.

With no journalists present in the court room, the public has largely depended on defense spokesmen for information on the legal proceedings. But last week, Russian TV channels seemed to be competing with what they said was information provided either by leaks in the FSB or by the security service itself.

First, NTV played an audio recording of what it said were Russian security-service agents pressuring Babkin to maintain his earlier testimony. Then, several days later, the state-controlled RTR television aired blurry black-and-white images from what it said was a secret videotape of a meeting between Pope and Babkin in a Moscow hotel room where, it was said, the two men negotiated the sale of documents. But the fuzzy picture quality made identification impossible and seemed to show at least a third person -- probably an interpreter -- present. The conversation appeared to refer to a deal, but did not refer to confidential information.

If convicted, Pope could be sentenced to up to 20 years in jail. President Bill Clinton and other high U.S. officials have appealed to Russian authorities to free Pope on health grounds. Pope suffers from a rare form of bone cancer.

Two months ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted that Pope might eventually be released. But a release, Putin suggested, could come only after the trial was concluded.