Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 168

During a ninety-minute meeting between U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin in New York on September 6, Clinton reportedly raised the issue of Edmond Pope, a U.S. businessman who has been imprisoned in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo Prison since early April on espionage charges. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott later told reporters that Putin “certainly understands the importance which President Clinton attaches” to the Pope case. But he refused to divulge any of the details of the discussion between the two presidents on this point.

Although little more than a footnote to the UN Millennium Summit, the Pope case appears in fact to have become a significant point of friction between Washington and Moscow. It is also a conflict in which the Clinton administration appears to have made little progress. Pope, a 54-year-old retired U.S. naval intelligence officer, was arrested this past April by agents of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) on allegations of having tried to obtain secret information from a Russian scientist about a new underwater missile. At the time of his arrest, FSB spokesmen also accused Pope of having worked over a long period to establish contacts with a number of Russian scientists in Moscow and other Russian cities–again with the alleged goal of trying to obtain classified information. A Russian citizen said to be an accomplice of Pope was also detained at the time of Pope’s arrest. Reports said that the Russian faced a possible seven-year jail sentence. Pope himself is facing a ten to twenty year jail term if convicted (see the Monitor, April 6, 14, June 22).

Those close to Pope, together with U.S. government officials, have vehemently denied the espionage charges. They say that the contacts he built up with Russian scientists were a natural and innocent consequence of his business dealings in Russia, which were openly pursued and involved a search for military technologies which might be converted to civilian use. According to Pennsylvania Congressman John Peterson, in whose district Pope resided and who has involved himself in the case, Pope is actually being accused of trying to buy a ten-year-old underwater propulsion technology which “has since been sold to the Canadians. It had been advertised at sales around the world. It is available … it is de-certified and available for commercial exploitation.” Peterson accused FSB agents of overzealous bungling when they arrested Pope, and told reporters that Pope is “no spy,” but an “independent businessman who has been working in Russia for five to six years” (Reuters, August 30).

Peterson’s remarks followed an August trip to Moscow in which he tried in vain to visit Pope. At the same time, reports indicated that the Clinton administration had stepped up its own pressure on the Kremlin to release Pope. That pressure was reportedly being exerted by Clinton–in repeated discussions with Putin–and by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and other high-ranking U.S. officials. The State Department has reportedly written numerous protests warning that Pope’s continued confinement endangers his health (San Jose Mercury News, August 29). Indeed, the question of Pope’s physical well-being has become an urgent one. He suffers from a rare form of bone cancer and, according to his wife, has declined markedly since his incarceration began. Cheryl Pope has been permitted on several occasions to see her husband, but Moscow has refused Washington’s requests that a U.S. embassy doctor be allowed to visit him. Both Pope’s attorney and U.S. diplomats charge that the FSB doctor assigned to monitor Pope has admitted that he is unfamiliar with the rare form of cancer from which Pope is in remission.

The U.S. pressure, meanwhile, led to an angry response from Moscow last month. On August 31 the Russian Foreign Ministry accused U.S. officials of trying “to substitute [themselves] for investigative and judicial organs.” Moscow also complained about unspecified U.S. State Department threats to tie concerns over the Pope case to “prospects for Russian-American trade and economic relations.” The Russian side also defended the medical examinations Pope is receiving. In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher fired back, saying that the Russian government bears responsibility for maintaining the health and welfare of detained American citizens. He also repeated an earlier threat that, because of Pope’s incarceration, the U.S. government might consider issuing travel advisories aimed at discouraging U.S. business people from visiting Russia (Reuters, AP, August 31). On August 29 another State Department spokesman was quoted as saying that the “treatment of Mr. Pope raises… serious concerns about the safety and security of American travelers in Russia and our ability to protect the health and welfare of American citizens” (AP, August 29).

Back in Moscow, meanwhile, Pope suffered another minor setback yesterday when a Moscow court postponed until September 19 a hearing which was to have dealt with his appeal to be released on health grounds. Pope’s lawyer, Pavel Astakhov, attributed the delay to a “technical detail”–the apparent absence of a necessary document. “We do not want to believe this is the result of ill will [on the part of the authorities],” he was quoted as saying. On August 24 a Russian court rejected Pope’s earlier appeal for release (Reuters, UPI, September 11).

The Pope case was highlighted last week during Putin’s appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Live.” In a reference to U.S. appeals for Pope’s release, the Russian president said that his country’s courts would have to be allowed to decide Pope’s fate. “Ultimately,” he said, “it’s only the court which, in a democratic state, can decide whether the man is to be condemned or not.” However, Putin appeared also to leave open the possibility either that the Kremlin might agree to Pope’s release on health grounds, or, conceivably, that he could be released as part of a swap between the two countries (Reuters, September 8).

The problem with Putin’s remarks, of course, is that questions continue to be raised about the independence of the Russian judiciary, particularly in cases involving FSB investigations into national security matters. Indeed, parallel cases involving Russian citizens accused of espionage do not provide an encouraging precedent. In the two most high-profile cases of this type–those involving the nuclear whistleblowers Aleksandr Nikitin and Grigory Pasko–the Russian courts did ultimately rule in favor of the accused (although the cases have not yet been fully resolved). Those court decisions came only after the two men were subjected to long and harrowing prison sentences, however, and suffered considerable harm to their health as a result.

In that regard, it appeared that the FSB may actually have accomplished what appeared to be its primary goals in those cases–the intimidation of those who might expose unpleasant truths about Russian defense matters and the chilling of contacts between Russian and Western colleagues in this area–despite the fact that it suffered defeats in the courts. The situation may be similar with regard to Pope. Whether he is released or not in the weeks ahead, his lengthy incarceration and resulting health problems are likely to make other Westerners think twice about getting involved in defense-related business dealings in Russia. Russian citizens who might otherwise involve themselves in such transactions may experience some second thoughts themselves.