WASHINGTON — A Russian court’s conviction of American businessman Edmond Pope on charges of illegally obtaining classified blueprints for a high-speed torpedo was “unjustified and wrong,” the White House said today.
Demanding his release on humanitarian grounds — Mr. Pope is believed to be suffering from a rare form of bone cancer — White House spokesman Jake Siewert said “there’s no doubt” the case has cast a shadow over U.S.-Russian relations.
“We will continue to pursue a multifaceted relationship with Russia based on what we think is in America’s long-term strategic interest,” Mr. Siewert said frostily.
Members of Congress urged President Clinton to press Russian President Vladimir Putin to intercede and gain Mr. Pope’s release. Touching on this, Mr. Siewert said, “The president has expressed his concern about Mr. Pope on a number of levels.”
The State Department joined the White House in insisting there was no evidence to support Mr. Pope’s conviction. The retired U.S. Navy officer, 54, faces 20 years in prison.
“We think he hasn’t had proper medical care there — that it’s important that the Russian government recognize on humanitarian grounds that he should be allowed to return to the United States and receive proper medical care,” Mr. Siewert said at the White House.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., urged Mr. Clinton to contact Mr. Putin and demand Mr. Pope’s safe return to his family in Pennsylvania.
“His health has visibly deteriorated possibly due to a recurrence of a very rare form of bone cancer,” Mr. Specter said in a letter released by his office.
It said Mr. Pope, of State College, Pa., had pursued technology that is commercially available and advertised openly for sale by Russian authorities.
Also, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., denounced the sentence as “an inexcusable travesty of justice.”
“If Russia forces Ed Pope, who is suffering from poor health, to serve prison time for a crime he did not commit, that country’s relationship with the U.S. will be forever scarred,” Mr. Walden said.
He said he was getting in touch with Mr. Clinton, Mr. Putin and Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering “to express the necessity of acting quickly and forcefully to free Ed Pope.”
And Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., taking a jab at Mr. Clinton, said “This president has been coasting around the country worrying about a legacy and doing nothing to get him out.”
Mr. Weldon said, “The conviction wasn’t a conviction of Ed Pope but a conviction of Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Ambassador Jim Collins. They let him languish for months and didn’t demand to free this innocent man. Now they’ll come up with a deal where he’ll be traded for a Russian who was correctly convicted in the United States of spying.”
“If I had my way we’d trade Ed Pope for Bill Clinton,” Mr. Weldon said.
All along, the State Department had insisted the charges should be dropped, cited Mr. Pope’s health and criticized Russian officials for giving U.S. diplomats and an American physician only limited access to the prisoner.
The conviction is bound to be on Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s agenda when she meets in Brussels, Belgium, in midmonth with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.
Mr. Pope had been on trial since Oct. 18, insisting on his innocence. He contended that the torpedo plans were not secret because they had been sold abroad and published.
U.S. relations with Moscow have slumped even as the two countries collaborated in trying to compel the Taliban group that controls most of Afghanistan to hand over Osama bin Laden for trial in the United States on terrorism charges.
Department spokesman Richard Boucher today criticized a Russian decision to exempt residents of breakaway regions of Georgia from rules tightening the issuance of visas for Georgians to enter Russia.
Last week, the State Department made public a Russian decision to terminate a 5-year-old pledge to halt sales of tanks and other battlefield equipment to Iran.
The pledge was terminated Friday, but this week Mr. Boucher said there was no evidence Russia had resumed arms sales to Iran. A U.S. delegation was sent this week to Moscow to ask for a reversal.