Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 210

The trial of accused American spy Edmond Pope took an unexpected turn yesterday when the prosecution’s chief witness apparently recanted his earlier testimony against Pope. According to Pavel Astakhov, Pope’s Russian lawyer, Anatoly Babkin had submitted to the Moscow court which is trying Pope a written statement in which Babkin categorically denies passing secret information to the American businessman. Babkin, a seventy-year-old professor at the Bauman State Technical Institute in Moscow, claimed in his statement that his earlier testimony had been extracted from him by Russian authorities while he was “under duress” and suffering from a “pre-heart-attack condition.” In his statement to the court, which was signed November 3, Babkin wrote that: “In reality I had never met with Pope one-on-one, and did not pass any secret information to him. Pope never asked me to pass him any secret information.” Babkin asked the court to look on his earlier testimony “as not corresponding to reality” (International Herald Tribune, November 9; Reuters, AP, November 8).

Yesterday’s revelations from Babkin followed another unexpected incident this past weekend which also seemed to weaken the case that Russian authorities have built against Pope. On November 5, the independent Russian television network NTV’s program “Itogi” broadcast an audiotape which it believed to be a conversation involving Babkin, his wife Galina Yashina and two men identified only as Oleg and Andrei. On the tape, Oleg warns Babkin against giving any testimony in Pope’s trial which might conflict with the testimony that he had given earlier to Russian authorities. Oleg tells Babkin that, if he does this, he “will get article 275”–that is, Babkin will himself be charged with treason. Oleg also reportedly tells Yashina that if her husband testifies in court differently than he had during the investigation, then he will “again end up in Lefortovo Prison and then in Siberian prison camps.”

NTV would not spell out how it came into possession of the audiotape, saying only that it was received “under rather complicated circumstances.” It also said that it was impossible to state definitely that the conversation between the Russian scientist and his two visitors had indeed taken place in Babkin’s apartment. But the TV station said it believed the conversation to be genuine. It also suggested that the conversation was likely to have taken place shortly before a scheduled appearance by Babkin at the Moscow trial, where he was expected to testify against Pope. That appearance never took place because the trial was briefly suspended due to Pope’s health problems. Because of his own health problems Babkin is now apparently not scheduled to testify at Pope’s trial (Moscow Times, Reuters, November 8).

Pope and Babkin were both arrested in April by agents of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) on charges that Babkin had passed to Pope classified information on the high-speed Russian torpedo called “Shkval.” Pope, who has been in Lefortovo prison since his arrest, faces a possible twenty-year jail sentence. Babkin, meanwhile, was charged with treason, but the case against him has been suspended. FSB officials claim that the suspension is due to Babkin’s health problems; Pope’s lawyer Astakhov charges that the suspension is a reward for Babkin’s agreement to testify against Pope.

Babkin’s wife Yashina, meanwhile also told NTV that her husband had never handed over any information to Pope. “He never passed any materials to Pope, he never spoke to Pope in private, only in the presence of… an interpreter because he does not speak English” (Moscow Times, November 8). Pope, in turn, speaks no Russian. Yashina’s remarks raise another important point which Pope’s accusers appear not to have addressed adequately–the role of the translator. Given the inability of the two men to communicate directly with each other, their verbal transactions would had to have involved a translator. The prosecution has apparently not produced any such person to provide testimony buttressing its case.

In a report published today, the Russian newspaper Segodnya (which like NTV is part of the media empire built by Putin-critic Vladimir Gusinsky) observed that the evidence in the case against Pope “looks to be growing less convincing with each passing day.” It is not clear, however, that this apparent fact is being reflected in the courtroom. According to remarks to reporters by Astakhov yesterday, the Moscow judge presiding over the Pope case has refused to accept as evidence–or even to include in the court record–Babkin’s written statement recanting his earlier testimony. The judge has reportedly also rejected one motion from Astakhov asking the court to visit the ailing Babkin at his home and to take his testimony there, and another calling Babkin’s wife as a witness. These decisions by the Moscow judge are but the latest in a long series of rejections of motions which Astakhov has offered in Pope’s defense. Moreover, an FSB spokesman claimed yesterday that his agency’s case against Pope could survive the loss of Babkin’s testimony. He said that the prosecutor’s case also included documentary and video material (Reuters, November 8; International Herald Tribune, Segodnya, November 9).

The Clinton administration, meanwhile, has continued to make no progress in its efforts to get Pope released from prison so that, at the least, he might get access to American doctors. The U.S. businessman and former naval intelligence officer is in remission from a rare form of bone cancer which his family and supporters believe FSB physicians are treating inadequately. The American side did win a small victory yesterday, when the Russian doctors administering Pope passed on his test results to the doctor at the U.S. embassy. That assessment reportedly demonstrated that Pope’s cancer has not recurred, but an embassy spokesman pointed out that the U.S. doctor has not fully reviewed the test results. He also said that the United States would continue to press Russian authorities for Pope’s release or, at the least, for the granting of access to Pope by an American doctor (Reuters, November 8). The day’s events, which marked the resumption of Pope’s trial after a brief postponement, suggested that the case will remain a point of friction between Russia and the United States.