MOSCOW — Richard L. Bliss, a telecommunications technician from San Diego who was charged with espionage for using satellite equipment in his work, was freed Tuesday from Russian custody in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don to return home for the holidays.
The release of Bliss, 29, was hailed by his employer, Qualcomm Inc. of San Diego, as a humanitarian gesture allowing him to join his family in time for Christmas.
But a Russian lawyer representing the accused American and even the local intelligence chief in Rostov hinted that the move was the first step toward acknowledging that the arrest of Bliss on spying charges was a mistake.
Bliss was expected to be back in San Diego by late tonight, said Qualcomm Senior Vice President Dan Sullivan in a phone interview from Rostov, where he has spent the past two weeks trying to sort out the case that has rekindled Western fears of doing business in Russia.
Officials of the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, a successor agency to the dreaded KGB, refused to confirm that Bliss has been allowed to leave the country.
But both the State Department and the well-connected news agency Interfax said Bliss was free to depart.
"The FSB has agreed to allow Rich to return home for the holidays to be with his family on his personal assurance that he will return for continuation of the investigation," said Sullivan, who planned to accompany Bliss and the only other Qualcomm employee still in Rostov.
Although Russian officials placed no restrictions on Bliss other than that he return to Rostov by Jan. 11, Sullivan said Bliss and his attorneys had decided he would make no comment on his situation until he is back in San Diego. "We see this, of course, as a very positive step allowing Richard to be with his family and we are appreciative of the FSB gesture," Sullivan said.
He declined to say how or exactly when Bliss would be traveling home, only that Qualcomm executives had added their personal assurances that the technician who spent 12 days in jail before being transferred to house arrest would abide by the terms of his temporary release.
But Valery Petryayev, a Rostov lawyer who has been representing Bliss in the affair, described the decision to let him go home for the holidays as a concession that he was being held unjustly. "By allowing Bliss to go on vacation to the United States, they [the FSB] demonstrate that they realize that they really made a mistake and they want this case to die off quietly," he said. "Secretly they are hoping that he will not come back. But he will give them a surprise and return."
In an interview in this week's issue of the prominent magazine Arguments and Facts, Valery Dyatlenko, the FSB chief in Rostov, also appears to be making allowances for possible errors. Dyatlenko insisted that the agency has no latitude to decide what constitutes spying, that agents are merely armed with lists of equipment and activities deemed to be the illegitimate tools of intelligence-gathering.
"The organs of security do not themselves define what is secret and what is not," Dyatlenko told the magazine.
Bliss was arrested Nov. 25 and charged 10 days later with espionage, for which a guilty verdict can bring 20 years imprisonment. He was freed on bail Dec. 6 but was ordered to remain in Rostov.
He was arrested while using a global positioning system in preparation for installing a satellite telephone network under contract with a local telecommunications firm. He and his employer have denied any wrongdoing.
Qualcomm, a manufacturer and supplier of wireless communications equipment, has Russian joint-ventures in Moscow and Chelyabinsk as well as the operation in Rostov. In October, the firm announced a $5.8-million satellite network for the Rostov region.