Edmond Pope: Arrested and imprisoned for espionage in Russia
Edmond Pope was convicted of espionage in Russia, and served 253 days in a Moscow prison before being pardoned by Vladimir Putin of a 20-year hard labor sentence. He is the author of "Torpedoed," which recounts his experiences. Pope maintains his innocence, saying that the plans were not secret, since they had been sold abroad, and were published in open sources.
CNN: Good afternoon Edmond Pope and welcome to CNN.com.
POPE: Thank you very much. It's my pleasure to be here, and I'd like to say hello and thank you to the people out there who followed my story last year.
CNN: Mr. Pope, could you tell us the circumstances surrounding your arrest in Russia last year. Where were you when you were arrested and what were you told?
POPE: I was taken into custody from my hotel room the day before I was scheduled to depart Moscow. It was my 27th business trip to Russia in the past ten years, and I was told that I was being taken in for some simple questions. The simple questions kept getting more serious and involved. They held me for several days in isolation, and after holding me for ten days, they charged me with espionage. I was held for a total of 253 days, including the investigation, a six week trial held behind closed doors, a conviction with a maximum sentence of 20 years, with the priviso that it be hard labor, with minimal family contact.
Immediately after the conviction, President Putin pardoned me, And my wife and I departed Russian on the 14th of December last year, as soon as they let me out of prison. I had been working during this trip as I had my entire ten years of working there, on various technology and other business activities. After the investigation and trial, what they ended up charging me with was stealing some secret data. The data in question consisted of five reports that had been given to me when I was an employee of the Pennsylvania State University. The reports had all been approved by a security commission at the university, and approved by senior university officials.
CNN: What did you think when they told you they were charging you with espionage?
POPE: I thought it was a joke at first. I knew I had not been doing anything wrong. I spent 25 years on active duty in the US Navy, most of the time as an intelligence officer. I knew they knew of my background, and that they'd been watching me, as they should. I knew that because of my background, my presence would be more scrutinized than a regular businessman, so I went out of my way to make sure that I did not violate any regulations or security rules over there.
CHAT PARTICIPANT:: Errors and mis-communication happen all the time with goverments. Do you feel you were a traget or scapegoat? Or do you feel you were a victim of government screwups?
POPE: Excellent question. The reason I was arrested was a change in the Russian administration which occurred on the 26th of March, and was centered strictly around the election of Vladimir Putin. When he was elected, as opposed to the three previous months when he was only acting, the hardliners saw an opportunity to regain a position of strength in the Russian government, to reassert control over the population.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: During the questioning by the Russians, were you abused in any way? Did they use sleep deprivation or any drugs in your interrogation?
POPE: There was no physical abuse of me, no beatings or physical torture. I did witness physical torture of at least two cellmates. With me, yes, there was sleep deprivation, psychological games, tormenting me, and they did drug me. I don't have conclusive proof, but a great deal of circumstantial evidence. During the worst part of the drugging, I could not stand up for three days, couldn't eat, sleep or talk. It was part of a plot I learned of after my release.
The plot was by the KGB and the Russian mafia, working together. I have spoken to the people here in the US who were going to be funding the activity. The Russians wanted $800,000. They would have made me appear ill, which indeed they did. They would have gotten to the point where the prison authorities would have declared I needed to be taken to an outside hospital. During the transit to the hospital, the truck would have been hijacked, I would have been removed, and spirited out of the country. I'm grateful that Congressman John Peterson and my wife learned of this plot and put a stop to it before it was carried out. CHAT PARTICIPANT: Who did they think you were spying for?
POPE: They thought I was spying for the US government. The charge was espionage. In the early days of the arrest, they felt absolutely sure they had themselves a big time spy. They were specific, and charged me with working for the CIA, and tried to get me to confess. As time went on, and they saw they didn't have any evidence, and in fact I wasn't working for those organizations, I could see the frustration growing in my interrogators. I can understand slowness on the part of our government and other people back here trying to secure my release. They had to check to make sure that I indeed wasn't spying. That took a few weeks. Then they had to try to understand the real reasons for my arrest. They couldn't figure that out until they started seeing other dramatic policy changes by the new Russian administration.
It then became clear that Putin had his own agenda that was radically different in some ways than Yeltsin's and indeed those policy changes were being put into place only after Putin's election as president, so he'd then have a six-year agenda to work under. Some of the things I've learned since I've been out of prison confirm the backward step the hardline coming into a dominant position in the Russian regime of today.
One example is looking at human rights. During the Gorbechev years, a new humanitarian panel was formed to advise the Russian government, called the pardons commission. It reviewed prison sentences that were either wrong, overly harsh, or should be reviewed and reduced. This commission was in action for ten-plus years, including into Putin's first year. During Putin's first 12 months as acting, then elected president, he received recommendations from this commission, and he personally signed pardons for 12,500 people, to be let out of the Russian penal system. I am the last person that has been pardoned. It's been about 11 months now, and not a single soul has been pardoned from the Russian gulag system.
The pardons commission has now been dissolved. Freedom of the press continues to be curtailed in Russia. The two major media conglomerates have been effectively shut down. Last year, Vladimar Gusinsky was chased out of the country He left and went into hiding. His newspaper was taken over by the Russian government. More recently, the media empire run by Boris Berzovsky has been also shut down. Mr. Berzovsky has left Russia. Two weeks ago the Russian prosecutor's office filed formal charges against him. So, there is effectively no major private news media in Russia anymore.
CNN: How has this experienced changed you?
POPE: I'm still learning to live with the changes. I still find it incredible that it happened to me. I'm dealing with it, I think, fairly well. My wife is still having a lot of difficulty because of the struggle she had to go through to secure my release. In some ways, it's given me a more positive outlook on life. All the petty problems I had in the past have faded. I have my health, my cancer has not come back, and I feel I have a new lease on life.
CNN: Do you have any closing comments for us today?
POPE: I want to make sure that people understand that I have great respect and admiration for the Russian people. They are bright and industrious and warm, but they're still being subjugated by a harsh regime that has taken a step backwards under Vladimir Putin. At the same time, I want to applaud the approach that the US government is now taking, in light of the September 11 attacks. We must have a dialogue with Russia. They have a lot to offer. I'm glad to see them joining the coalition. But the bottom line is that we cannot trust them. The word with Russia is "trust" and then "verify." I would encourage people interested in the story to be sure to go to my Web site, which is http://www.edmondpope.com. It's a complement to the book, but also contains other stories I didn't have room to put into the book.
CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Edmond Pope.
POPE: Thank you for having me here today.
Edmond Pope joined CNN.com via telephone. CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview, which took place on Monday, November 05, 2001.
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