MOSCOW — Russian officials hinted Thursday that President Vladimir V. Putin may rapidly pardon and order the release of U.S. businessman Edmond D. Pope, who was convicted this week of spying and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Anatoly Pristavkin, chairman of the president's clemency commission, said Pope sent an appeal to Putin on Thursday, a day after his sentence was handed down. Putin immediately passed it to the commission, which plans to consider it today.
"I hope the commission will be merciful, as always, and will recommend that the president pardon Mr. Pope so he can leave for his homeland and reunite with his family," Pristavkin said in an interview on state television.
"The commission will take humanitarian factors into account--that Mr. Pope said in his letter that his father is dying, that he himself is very ill, and that he would like to be reunited with his family," Pristavkin said.
The final decision rests with Putin. However, in the past the president has nearly always followed the recommendations of the clemency commission, whose members are prominent intellectuals and cultural figures.
"More likely than not, he ought to be pardoned," journalist Alexander Bovin, another commission member, said late Thursday.
Pope's lawyer said his client was distraught after Wednesday's sentencing hearing and decided to forgo further legal appeals and instead apply directly to Putin for a pardon on humanitarian grounds.
"I feel unwell and need immediate medical care," Pope wrote, according to lawyer Pavel Astakhov. "I appeal to you to decide this issue as rapidly as possible, as my father is terminally ill and I would like to see him one last time."
Before his arrest in April, Pope was in remission from a rare form of bone cancer. He has complained that his health has deteriorated in prison, and he fears that the cancer may have returned.
U.S. officials, including President Clinton, have repeatedly asked Putin to release Pope because of his failing health.
Pope, a former naval intelligence analyst, has spent the last eight months in Moscow's Lefortovo prison, the main jail for the Federal Security Service, successor to the Soviet KGB. Russian doctors who examined him said they found no evidence that he was in poor health.
On Thursday, Pope was convicted by a Moscow court of paying $30,000 for the plans for a top secret torpedo known as the Shkval, or "Squall," which travels nearly three times faster than any North Atlantic Treaty Organization torpedo. Pope's lawyer said his client had requested only declassified information about the Shkval.
After retiring as an intelligence analyst, Pope started his own marine technology import company, CERF Technologies, in State College, Pa.
The specific charges and evidence against Pope were kept secret, and the trial took place behind closed doors. Russian prosecutors insisted that the information Pope received from a contact at Moscow's Bauman technical university was highly classified, but their evidence remains secret.
Pope's 20-year prison sentence was unusual for spy cases, which are generally resolved by behind-the-scenes negotiations and have rarely resulted in a court verdict. The only other American to be convicted of spying against Russia or the Soviet Union was U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers, who was sentenced in 1960 to three years in prison and seven years of hard labor. He was freed two years later in a spy swap.
Since Pope's trial began in October, speculation has been high that the Kremlin was seeking a rapid conviction so Putin could gain twin propaganda victories: looking tough at home by first convicting him, then demonstrating goodwill by pardoning him.
"Politically, it is not profitable for our government to keep Pope in confinement," said Mikhail Lyubimov, a retired KGB officer and former spy. "To keep him now in a [labor] camp would look like a farce. To pardon him now would appear humane and fair, especially in terms of establishing relations with a new [U.S.] administration."