A Moscow court yesterday sentenced Pennsylvania businessman Edmond Pope to 20 years in a maximum security prison on espionage charges in a decision that drew a sharp condemnation from the United States.
If the expected appeal to the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation is rejected, the 54-year-old former naval intelligence officer would be the first American convicted of espionage in Russia since U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union four decades ago.
The White House and the State Department immediately assailed the verdict and appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to release the ailing Mr. Pope, who has a history of bone cancer, on humanitarian grounds.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called the verdict of the Moscow City Court “unjustified” and “wrong,” citing both a lack of evidence and the sharp limitations put on Mr. Pope’s lawyers to present a defense in open court.
There are no Russians currently jailed in the United States on espionage charges, according to the State Department.
President Clinton and top U.S. officials have brought up the case of Mr. Pope repeatedly with Russian counterparts.
Mr. Clinton raised it last month in a meeting with Mr. Putin at an economic summit in Brunei.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov by phone yesterday after the decision was handed down, the State Department said yesterday.
“There’s no doubt that this has cast a shadow over U.S.-Russian relations,” White House spokesman Jake Siewert told reporters, although he refused to discuss whether specific retaliatory steps were planned.
Congress has already condemned the prosecution and the House approved a resolution to cut aid to Russia if Mr. Pope was convicted. Republican lawmakers yesterday said Mr. Clinton had not done enough to aid the U.S. businessman, who supporters say may have suffered a recurrence of bone cancer while being detained in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo Prison.
“This president has been coasting around the country worrying about a legacy and doing nothing to get [Mr. Pope] out,” said Rep. Curt Weldon, Pennsylvania Republican. “The conviction wasn’t a conviction of Ed Pope but a conviction of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and [U.S. Ambassador to Russia] Jim Collins.”
Sen. Gordon H. Smith, the Oregon Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on European affairs, warned in a statement yesterday that “legislative action will occur should Mr. Pope not be released immediately.”
Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), Mr. Putin’s former employer and the main successor to the Soviet Union’s KGB, arrested Mr. Pope April 5, charging him with attempting to obtain top-secret plans for a high-speed Russian torpedo, known as the Shkval, from contacts at a Russian technical university.
Mr. Pope’s company, State College, Pa.-based CERF Technologies International, studies foreign maritime technology for possible commercial applications. During the trial, he contended he was seeking information on a version of the torpedo that is more than a decade old and has been widely sold in the West since 1996.
Reporters and U.S. Embassy observers were not allowed inside the Moscow courtroom yesterday but witnesses said Mr. Pope delivered an impassioned defense of his activities.
Calling the prosecution case “absurd,” Mr. Pope concluded: “Although I spent eight months in prison in Russia, I am not a spy. The only decision you must make is to let me go home to my family.”
Pavel Astakhov, Mr. Pope’s outspoken Russian attorney, told reporters in Moscow that officials at Bauman State Technical University testified in support of Mr. Pope, but the court ignored them.
“This trial will go down in the history of jurisprudence for the numerous violations permitted,” Mr. Astakhov said. “There is no semblance of fairness or justice here.”
Mr. Putin did not comment yesterday on the verdict. He said during the trial that he would consider intervening only after the legal process has run its course. Many in the West have said Mr. Putin’s handling of the Pope trial could give a clue to the influence the internal security agencies wield in his administration.
FSB spokesman Alexander Zdanovich told Russia’s Interfax news agency yesterday that the court decision “confirmed the rightfulness and legality of the FSB investigative activity.”
The State Department in October issued a formal warning to U.S. high-tech companies about the risks of doing business with Russia’s defense industry, based in large part on the Pope case.
Mr. Boucher said yesterday the warning could jeopardize investment and research contracts avidly sought by Russia.
“We know from our own contacts that [the warning] does give people pause,” he said.
But both the State Department and the White House said the U.S.-Russian relationship involved a range of issues and the administration would continue to engage Mr. Putin’s government when American national interests were affected.
Even as Mr. Pope was hearing his sentence yesterday, U.S. and Russian negotiators in Moscow opened new talks on limiting Russian arms sales abroad, in particular to Iran. The discussions will continue today, Mr. Boucher said.