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Russia: Court's Verdict On American Draws Quick U.S. Criticism

  • Lisa McAdams

A Russian court has found ailing American businessman Edmund Pope guilty of spying and sentenced him to a maximum 20 years in prison. As RFE/RL's Senior Correspondent Lisa McAdams reports, it is a chilling development that drew immediate criticism in Washington.

Washington, 7 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. officials, on record for months about the importance of justice in American businessman Edmund Pope's spy trial in Moscow, have been quick to register displeasure after Wednesday's court ruling found Pope guilty. He was sentenced to a maximum 20 years in prison.

It is the first time a U.S. citizen has been convicted of espionage in Russia since the end of the Cold War.

Pope, a former U.S. Naval intelligence officer, was arrested last April and charged with obtaining secret blueprints of a high-speed Russian underwater torpedo. His defense argued that the documents were not confidential since they were available in specialized magazines and U.S. officials have maintained from the start that they have seen no evidence Pope did anything illegal.

Pope, who suffers from a rare form of bone cancer said to have been in remission prior to his jailing, has already done eight months time in Moscow's Lefortovo prison and his health is described as deteriorating rapidly.

At the White House, spokesman Jake Siewert called the conviction and sentencing "unjustified and wrong," adding that it has definitely left a mark on U.S.-Russian relations already strained by disputes over Kosovo and Chechnya -- among other disagreements.

"Well there's no doubt that this has cast a shadow over U.S.-Russian relations. At the same time, our overall relationship with Russia is based on our own national interests and we have a strong national interest in promoting democracy there, in seeing fewer nuclear weapons in Russia, and we'll continue to pursue a multifaceted relationship with Russia."

The conviction also is bound to be on U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's agenda when she meets in Brussels, Belgium, later this month with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.

Meanwhile, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher says the U.S. still looks to Russia to release Pope on humanitarian grounds.

"Once again, we stress we look to the Russian government to release him. We think he needs proper medical attention, he needs to be with his family, and we look to them to release him. Clearly, its well time to do that."

Boucher added that the verdict, while unwelcome, was hardly a surprise, given the inability of Pope's lawyers to introduce evidence at the closed-door trial.

The defense filed some 200 petitions but all but a handful were thrown out, even as petitions by the prosecution were granted.

David Kramer is the associate director of the Carnegie Endowment's Russia and Eurasia program in Washington. He went so far as to call the Pope trial a "farce." Leaving aside the issue of whether or not Pope did anything wrong, Kramer said Pope did not receive a fair hearing by any means. Kramer said the message that can be taken from that and the subsequent ruling is chilling.

"I think the message that has been sent is [that] perhaps Russia is cracking down on the activities of some American businessmen and that would be an unfortunate message to send at a time when it should be in Russia's interest to be encouraging foreign business and investment."

Kramer said the turn of events will also only serve to strengthen the position of U.S.-Russia policy critics in the U.S. Congress, who have accused the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton of being, as they see it, "too soft on Russia."

"It will I think just provide more fodder for them when they argue that the administration has not taken a tough enough stance against certain Russian actions. We go back to the case of Andrei Babitsky the RFE/RL reporter back in January of this year, now the Pope case, Russia's plans to go ahead with arms sales to Iran...for critics of the administration's policy the list seems to be getting longer and now the Pope verdict will just be one more issue on that list. So its not going to help U.S.-Russian relations by any means."

But Kramer noted all may not be lost. Pope's lawyers now have seven days to appeal. So, as Kramer suggests, there is a distinct possibility we haven't heard the last of the Pope case yet.

"My guess is -- and its just a guess -- Pope will not serve much longer in a Russian prison. That's certainly my hope, as well as my guess, that there will be some sort of accommodation where he will be allowed to go back to the United States, particularly given his health situation."

U.S. officials have characterized Pope's case as "very important," and said they will continue to make their views known at the highest levels at every opportunity. But neither Siewert at the White House nor Boucher at the State Department would venture much further when queried about potential punitive actions against Russia by the United States.

Separately and aside, it is interesting to note that the ruling in the high-profile Pope spying case comes just two days before the one-year anniversary of the arrest of Stanislav Gusev, a Russian intelligence officer. Gusev was arrested outside the State Department last year while transmitting from what U.S. officials described as a highly-sophisticated listening device placed inside the State Department. Russian officials at the time said the charges against Gusev were "implausible and laughable." Nevertheless, he was expelled from the U.S.

Kramer says there is no doubt use of Russia's secret services is on the rise, since Vladimir Putin, a former KGB official, came to power. What message that is designed to send, both within Russia and beyond, is yet another story.