Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 234

Edmond Pope’s long ordeal came to an apparently happy conclusion yesterday when, following President Vladimir Putin’s pardon, the U.S. businessman was released from prison and whisked away to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Pope, a businessman and former naval intelligence officer, was arrested April 3 on espionage charges. Last week a Russian court convicted him on those same charges, and sentenced him to twenty years in prison.

Yesterday’s pardon was not unexpected. On December 9, only days after the conviction, Putin indicated his intention to free Pope. Putin was said to have decided this following a recommendation by a government pardons commission which met on December 8 (Western news agencies, December 9-10). Not surprisingly, the Clinton administration hailed the pardon; it had joined with lawmakers in lobbying for Pope’s release. More broadly, Pope’s departure from Russia and the conclusion of his long and acrimonious detention and trial there should remove what had become an important irritant in Russian-U.S. relations. As welcome as the news of Pope’s pardon is, however, is the fact that his arrest and the subsequent heavy-handed conduct of his case by Russian authorities cannot but focus more attention on what has become one of the most disturbing trends in Vladimir Putin’s Russia: the growing arrogance and power of the country’s security agencies and their continued ability to ride roughshod over the justice system.

Indeed, U.S. officials were left outraged following the shocking but not unexpected decision by a Moscow court on December 6 to find Pope guilty of espionage and to sentence him to a maximum twenty-year prison sentence in a high security labor camp. The conviction generated outrage on two levels. One was humanitarian. Pope suffers from a rare form of cancer and his defenders saw the jail term as tantamount to a death sentence. Even earlier, acrimony between Moscow and Washington over the Pope case had focused in part on the unwillingness of Russia’s security services to provide proper medical care for Pope. It was this consideration which led Pope’s legal team, the Clinton administration, and Pope’s defenders in the U.S. Congress to request repeatedly that the former naval intelligence officer be released from prison for reasons of health. Russian authorities rebuffed all appeals in this area.

American outrage was also generated by what appeared to be the weakness of the government’s case and by the apparent bias of the Moscow court which was trying Pope. Pope and his legal team denied that information he had received on the high-speed “Shkval” torpedo was classified, and argued that it was available commercially. During the trial, moreover, the state’s key witness recanted earlier testimony against Pope, saying that he had given it only under pressure. But, as in a host of other instances during the seven-week trial when the Moscow court refused to accept evidence supporting Pope, the court rejected the recantation and based its decision on the original testimony. In fact, Pope’s lawyer indicated that the court had rejected all but a handful of the some 200 motions the defense had filed on Pope’s behalf. The court also refused to address defense complaints that both the court translator and a state prosecutor had close links with the very security services responsible for Pope’s arrest. According to Pope’s defense, that connection constituted a conflict of interest and violated Russian law (AP, Reuters, BBC, December 6; Washington Post, December 7).

The irregularities the court countenanced, and the sense that the charges against Pope more generally were trumped up and poorly supported by evidence, were highlighted on December 8 when the presidential pardons commission reached its recommendation. The commission appeared to emphasize the humanitarian aspects of Pope’s case in urging the Russian president to offer a pardon. In a letter to Putin, the advisory body referred to Pope’s health situation, arguing that he had suffered enough during his pretrial detention in Lefortovo prison and that he would not live long in a penal colony. The commission also referred to the fact that a prison sentence would bar Pope from bidding farewell to his father, who is himself dying of cancer. But the commission also pointed to what it described as the “cruel” espionage sentence and expressed a desire to stem a possible return to Russia’s totalitarian past. And one commission member, Marietta Chudakova, spoke later of her conviction that Pope’s case reflected an attempt to “restore the atmosphere of a spy mania” in Russian society. “Our decision [to recommend clemency] was our protest against that, and our attempt to push society further along the road to democracy–especially since there have been some alarming signs,” she told reporters (AP, December 8).

A Russian human right’s activist was more specific with respect to such “alarming signs.” Lyudmila Alekseeva told reporters that prosecutors appeared in large part to have fabricated their case against Pope, and she suggested that in this respect his ordeal paralleled that of a group of Russian citizens–including Russian nuclear researchers Aleksandr Nikitin and Grigory Pasko, as well as former diplomat Valentin Moiseev–who have also fallen victim to the “spy mania” generated by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) (Segodnya, December 7).

One scenario for a resolution of the Pope case which had been speculated upon earlier but which did not come to pass involved a possible “spy” swap between Moscow and Washington. Aldrich Ames, the U.S. intelligence officer serving a life sentence in the United States for spying for Russia, was one name which had come up in this context. But Russian and U.S. sources have suggested that Washington did not in fact contemplate an exchange of this sort (Reuters, Segodnya, December 7).

Indeed, while some in Russia’s intelligence community may have preferred that Pope not be pardoned outright, the Kremlin seems in fact to have achieved what were probably its main aims in arresting and prosecuting the U.S. citizen. That is, Pope’s arrest, his difficult eight-month incarceration and his conviction are likely–pardon or not–to serve as a warning to other Western defense specialists who have established (or might be considering establishing) contacts with their Russian counterparts. In that sense, the Pope case, like those of Nikitin, Pasko and others, appears to have been aimed at chilling Russian contacts in this sensitive area with the West. This move to limit such contacts, and thereby to reverse the warming in this area between East and West which was a hallmark of the Yeltsin years, is by most accounts being driven both by Putin himself and by the phalanx of former KGB officers he has brought into the government. Not surprisingly, it appears to parallel the Kremlin’s similarly inspired crackdown on independent media.

The Pope case has provided Moscow other benefits. His arrest and conviction have presented the Kremlin with an opportunity to look tough diplomatically while tweaking Washington’s nose (Moscow’s preferred method of demonstrating the independence of its foreign policies). In this context, Pope’s pardon has in fact cost Putin next to nothing. It has, furthermore, provided him with the opportunity both to appear magnanimous and–the Kremlin would presumably like to think–to improve Moscow’s chances of getting off to a good start with the incoming U.S. presidential administration.