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Israel's Newest Immigrant : Shcharansky Gets a Hero's Welcome

February 12, 1986|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

LOD, Israel — Anatoly Shcharansky, the Soviet dissident whose imprisonment has been an irritant in East-West relations for nearly nine years, arrived to a tumultuous welcome at Ben-Gurion International Airport here Tuesday night, a free man and Israel's newest immigrant.

Shcharansky stepped off a government executive jet into the embrace of Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who greeted him as an "unbreakable" man. The 37-year-old dissident has proven, Peres said, that "you can arrest a body but you cannot put in prison a spirit."

While he appeared pale and slightly disoriented at first, Shcharansky seemed to gain strength as the welcoming ceremonies went on, and by the end of the evening he was leading an estimated 10,000 well-wishers at an outdoor airport rally in a rousing Hebrew folk song.

The 'Happiest Day'

"In this happiest day of our life, I'm not going to forget those whom I left in the camps, in prison, who are still in exile or who still continue their struggle for the right to emigrate and for their human rights," said Shcharansky, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison and labor camps as a spy for the CIA.

"And I hope that that enthusiasm, that energy, that joy which fills our hearts today--Avital's (his wife) and mine--will help us to continue the struggle for the freedom and life of our brothers in Russia."

Shcharansky's arrival here marked the end of a journey into freedom which began late Tuesday morning when he walked across the snow-covered Glienicke Bridge to West Berlin as part of the most publicized East-West prisoner exchange in at least a decade.

Meanwhile, Israeli officials said that imprisoned South African black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela is expected to be released within days as a part of the deal, but the South African government denied the report, and U.S. officials in Washington said they have no information on an imminent release of Mandela.

Exchange of Letters

Israel radio said Mandela's release was the subject of an exchange of letters between South African President Pieter W. Botha and Prime Minister Peres.

In a telephone conversation within minutes of his arrival here, Shcharansky thanked President Reagan for his help in making the dream of freedom come true.

"As you know, I was never an American spy,' the dissident told Reagan. Nevertheless, he said, 'I know very well how deep is the concern of your people in the problems of human rights all over the world. . . . And I want to ask you to inform all your people about our deepest gratitude for everything they do for human rights . . . and for Jews who want to emigrate from Russia to Israel in particular."

Shcharansky, who became a key link between Jewish activists and the unofficial human rights movement in the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s, was arrested on March 15, 1977, and accused of spying for the United States.

He was convicted and sentenced by a Moscow court on July 14, 1978, despite a public statement by then-President Jimmy Carter denying the espionage charges against him.

Learned of Release Monday

Israel radio reported that the dissident had learned of his impending release only Monday, when he was transferred from the Soviet Union to East Berlin in the first stage of the exchange. He was allowed to bring nothing but the ill-fitting clothes on his back.

Israelis stayed close to their radios all morning Tuesday, waiting for confirmation that Shcharansky had actually been freed. When the announcement finally came, Yuri Stern, spokesman for the Soviet Jewry Education and Information Committee in Jerusalem, said in a voice choked with emotion: "I lift my vodka and say 'L'chaim' "--a Hebrew toast to life.

"The fact that we won is a clear proof that we can make a difference (for Soviet Jews), and that we have a responsibility for their future," Stern added.

Shcharansky was flown from Berlin to Frankfurt, where Israel's ambassador to West Germany, Yitzhak Ben Ari, presented him with an Israeli passport and welcomed him as a citizen.

In Frankfurt, he boarded a specially outfitted Israeli government jet which had flown with his wife to West Germany just hours earlier. Uncertain about his physical condition, the government also provided a doctor, a nurse and basic medical equipment.

Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem said it had a private room available for Shcharansky if he needs it.

VIP Welcoming Committee

When Shcharansky's plane touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport just before 8 p.m. local time Tuesday, a score of top government officials, including several ministers, were on hand.

From the tarmac, Shcharansky was taken to a special room in the airport terminal normally used to greet new immigrants to Israel. Hundreds of journalists, former Soviet citizens and other well-wishers stood on chairs to try to catch a glimpse of the dissident over the top of the television cameras.

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