Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 87

John Tobin, the twenty-four-year-old American Fulbright scholar arrested in Russia this past January on drug possession charges (see the Monitor, February 28), has received a thirty-seven month prison term following a trial in the city of Voronezh which concluded on April 27. Although sources in Russia suggested that Tobin would appeal the verdict, and the U.S. State Department appears to be taking a low-key approach to the case until the appeal is heard, Tobin’s arrest and conviction could yet have an adverse impact on broader Russian-U.S. relations. That is because Tobin appears to have become a victim of the spy row which rocked Russian-U.S. relations this past spring and which led to a sharp upturn in tensions between the two countries. Indeed, Tobin’s arrest appears to have been viewed as a minor drug bust in Voronezh until Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the main and ever-more powerful successor to the Soviet KGB, got involved in the case. Against a background of accused spy Robert Phillip Hanssen’s arrest in the United States and the subsequent tit-for-tat expulsions of both Russian and American diplomats, Tobin himself suddenly faced allegations of being a spy and saw the drug charges against him expanded to include not only possession of marijuana but also its distribution. Conviction on that last count could have brought Tobin a fifteen-year jail sentence.

The ultimate dropping by a Voronezh court of the drug distribution charge reflected but one set of irregularities in the investigation and trial of Tobin, and demonstrated why his conviction even on the lesser charge–assuming that it is upheld–could focus international attention yet again on the shortcomings of Russia’s judicial system and its vulnerability to abuse by the country’s special services. That the distribution charges against Tobin were the result of a botched and probably prejudiced investigation was made clear on April 25, when Voronezh prosecutor Marina Galagan accused the senior police investigator in the case of having falsified information in Tobin’s case file. The falsification charge came, moreover, against a broader background of confusion and sharp disputes among police, prosecutors and witnesses over the amount of marijuana allegedly found on Tobin and over the U.S. student’s alleged involvement with drugs. According to reports, Galagan was quoted as saying that she was “ashamed to sit here [in the courtroom] and support the charges in the case.” Tobin, meanwhile, asserted his innocence with regard even to the possession charge, claiming that Voronezh police had planted the drugs found in his apartment and on his person. Tobin had originally been arrested on January 26 outside a nightclub after police allegedly found him carrying a matchbox containing marijuana. Prosecutors later charged that Tobin had been running a marijuana den out of his apartment.

But the already muddled drug case against Tobin was further complicated by FSB allegations of Tobin’s involvement with U.S. intelligence organizations. Although he was studying in Voronezh as a private citizen, Tobin is reported to be a trained interrogator who holds the rank of an Army Reserve specialist in the 325th Military Intelligence Battalion in Waterbury, Connecticut. He also studied Russian at a U.S. military school and at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. Tobin was in Voronezh doing sociological research for a dissertation, but his previous training led the FSB’s Voronezh Regional Department to charge that he either had connections to U.S. intelligence or was in training to become a spy. The FSB’s public remarks to this effect led Tobin’s Russian lawyer to complain after last week’s verdict that the “social fuss that has been pumped up by certain law enforcement officials could not but influence the attitude toward this case and the way it was investigated.”

After analyzing Tobin’s research materials the FSB ultimately made no formal accusations based on the spying charge. But even following Tobin’s sentencing last week a local FSB spokesman made it clear that the agency was still interested in learning more about Tobin’s activities in Voronezh. He pointed to what he suggested was a suspicious visit by the U.S. student to a power plant and to the fact that Tobin recorded his conversations with local politicians. The FSB spokesman also said that the agency was investigating information to the effect that Tobin had at one time interviewed Russian citizens arriving in the United States. “We are trying to establish who these people are since they are sure to get into the visibility field of the American special services,” he said. The comments suggest that the FSB intends to keep its options open while Tobin is in custody, and that the threat of espionage charges may continue to hang over his head. Whether the FSB takes additional action against Tobin could ultimately hang on how relations develop between the Kremlin and the Bush Administration, and between the intelligence establishments of the two countries (Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 14; New York Times, Segodnya, March 27; AP, April 24-25, 27; Reuters, April 24-25; Washington Post, April 28).

Meanwhile, the FSB appears in the Tobin case to have successfully sent another cautionary warning to Westerners who are or might be thinking of studying in Russia, and to those Russians who have or might become their associates. The Tobin case also casts a shadow over the prestigious Fulbright scholarship program, and is yet another reminder–like the cases of Aleksandr Nikitin, Grigory Pasko, Igor Sutyagin, Edmond Pope and others–that the Putin government will take a harsh view toward the contacts between Russians and foreigners which flourished during the Yeltsin era.