Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 122

The case of Edmond Pope, a retired American naval officer being held in Russia’s Lefortovo prison, remains unresolved this week nearly three months after his arrest on espionage charges. Pope’s wife, Cheryl, had a brief meeting with the 53-year-old American yesterday, after which she appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to release her husband. Mrs. Pope said that her husband’s health appeared to be deteriorating as a result of his long incarceration–that he looked weary and that he had lost a lot of weight. Pope is reportedly in remission from a rare form of bone cancer and requires medication. Pope’s wife yesterday said that he had proclaimed his innocence during their meeting. She called on Putin to “look at [her] husband as an individual and to see there’s a mistake being made here” (Reuters, AP, UPI, June 21).

Pope was arrested by Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agents on April 3 and charged a little over a week later with espionage. A Russian citizen, still unnamed but said to be a scientist working in the country’s defense sector, was arrested also for his alleged ties to Pope. Few details have been divulged regarding the case against the American, but FSB spokesmen and Russian media sources have suggested that he had tried to purchase secrets related to a Russian-made submarine-launched missile. One Russian daily reported in April that the missile in question was the Shkval (“Squall”), an underwater antiship missile said to be capable of traveling at more than 200 miles per hour. Izvestia quoted FSB officials on April 21 as saying that Pope had been hunting for information about the missile since 1996. They suggested that his frequent contacts with Russian defense specialists over several years had been related to that effort. Russian authorities also claimed that Pope, who had no diplomatic immunity, was found in possession of technical drawings, recordings of conversations and receipts to Russian contacts. The same source said that Pope had paid US$30,000 to his supplier (Obshchaya gazeta, No. 17, April; Izvestia, April 21).

Supporters of Pope, however, have proclaimed his innocence. They point out that the American had been traveling to Russia for several years and had built up contacts with Russian defense officials as a businessman who openly bought technology and sought joint ventures with Russian firms. Two Republican lawmakers, each from Pennsylvania where Pope makes his home, have taken up the retired naval officer’s case. One of the two, Representative Curt Weldon, who has traveled frequently to Russia, said that the technology Pope is accused of trying to steal comes from a thirty-year-old rocket propelled torpedo that is sold commercially around the world. He and Representative John Peterson, who sponsored Cheryl Pope’s visit to Moscow, have suggested that the espionage charges against Pope are nonsense. Weldon, moreover, has warned that the arrest is a “terrible signal to send as we try to do business with Russia… That is one of the reasons why American companies will not invest in Russia.” The two lawmakers, together with Pope’s wife, have criticized the State Department for not doing more to ensure Pope’s release (Reuters, AP, UPI, June 21).

Indeed, Pope’s case appears to have progressed in an unusually subdued fashion. There have been none of the histrionics which usually accompany spy rows of this sort and were so evident in a number of other espionage wrangles in which Russia has been involved over recent months. The disposition of the case also seems to have defied some earlier predictions that it would come to a quick conclusion and a speedy release for Pope. One Russian source had said that no Russian secrets were divulged to Pope, and that he would likely be given his freedom as a goodwill gesture by Putin prior to the Russian-U.S. summit meeting which took place earlier this month (Obshchaya gazeta, No. 17, April). That obviously did not happen, and Pope continues to face charges which could put him in a Russian prison for twenty years.

The handling of the Pope case has raised new questions about the behavior of Russia’s increasingly emboldened security services in the Putin era. Among other things, the arrest appears to follow a pattern in which Russia’s security services have moved against Russian defense specialists “guilty” of having developed close contacts with Western institutions or counterparts. Several Russian specialists have already been incarcerated on charges of this type, and while two of the best known–Aleksandr Nikitin and Grigory Pasko–were eventually freed, the practice has probably had the desired chilling effect on cooperative efforts in this area between Russia and the West.