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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pope Gets Pardon, Flies to Germany

President Vladimir Putin on Thursday pardoned American businessman Edmond Pope, who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison on espionage charges.

Pope was released from Lefortovo Prison and taken straight to Sheremetyevo Airport for a charter flight to Germany. His plane arrived at Ramstein Air Force base, 135 kilometers southwest of Frankfurt, in the afternoon.

"It's great to be back in the real world," Pope said, waving a small American flag and shouting through wind and rain at reporters from a balcony at the U.S. military's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. Wearing a light-blue hospital gown and hugging his wife, Pope said he felt great.

Pope, who has suffered in the past from a rare form of bone cancer and whose health deteriorated while in jail, was expected to spend a couple of days at Landstuhl to undergo thorough physical exam before returning to the United States, said Jennifer Bennett, a spokeswoman for Pope's Pennsylvania congressman John Peterson, who was traveling with Pope.

There have been several indications in recent months — including a lump in the neck and back pain — raising concerns about the cancer, Bennett said

"At the very least, he's malnourished and he has high blood pressure," she said.

His wife, Cheri, said that he had lost about 10 kilograms and two teeth, probably due to the poor prison diet.

A Russian presidential spokesman said that Putin had pardoned Pope on humanitarian grounds and in order to preserve good relations with Washington. The pardon cited "the health condition of the convict and his personal appeal, and also … the high level of ties between the Russian Federation and the United States of America."

U.S. President Bill Clinton welcomed the release in a statement from England, saying "it is important that humanitarian considerations prevailed in the end."

"Mr. Pope's ordeal was unjustified," Clinton added.

Pope's mother, Elizabeth, said from her home in Grants Pass, Oregon, that it was "like waking up from a horrible nightmare."

"I will be much happier when I see him and I am able to put my arms around him," Elizabeth Pope said.

Pope's imprisonment and conviction by a Moscow court last week on charges of obtaining plans for a top-secret navy torpedo prompted a diplomatic confrontation between Washington and Moscow. The U.S. government criticized the court that convicted Pope, with observers saying it was heavily biased in favor of the Russian security services.

Pope has protested his innocence, saying that the plans he purchased were not secret and that the technology had already been sold abroad and published in open sources.

Pope sent a letter to Putin asking for clemency on the eve of his conviction, his wife said.

Putin, who is on a visit to Cuba, had indicated last week that he would release Pope. Thursday was the first day that Putin could pardon Pope under Russian law.

"We regret this decision wasn't made during the judicial process," said Pope's lawyer Pavel Astakhov. "But freedom is the main thing that Pope needs now."

Cheri Pope went to the prison early Thursday along with U.S. Embassy officers. A clutch of reporters and TV crews waited at the gates of the high-security prison, which is surrounded by a cinderblock wall topped with coiled, barbed wire.

Alexander Zdanovich, the spokesman for the Federal Security Service, the intelligence agency that prosecuted Pope, said that Putin's pardon order arrived overnight.

Because the plane for Pope wasn't expected in Moscow until 9 a.m. at the earliest — in accordance with an agreement with U.S. officials — the prison authorities decided to let Pope "sleep through the night peacefully," Zdanovich said.

Russian television showed footage of a solemn-looking Pope, dressed in a beige sports jacket and green sweater, being read the pardon Thursday morning.

"I'm glad to finally be free, but I am experiencing mixed feelings: On the one hand, I'm glad, on the other, I regret that it happened like this. I wouldn't want to damage Russian-American relations," Pope was quoted as saying in a Russian voiceover by ORT television.

It was the first time in decades that an American had been convicted of espionage in Russia and the case had cast a pall on U.S.-Russian relations. P.J. Crowley, the White House spokesman, said that "obviously it's something that President Putin has now put behind us."

Liliya Shevtsova, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, suggested that Putin had pardoned Pope in hopes of favorable treatment under the U.S. president-elect, George W. Bush.

"I don't know whether he is guilty," Shevtsova said. "But his guilt clearly was not proven, and this leads us to think that it was a political case. It looks like there was some kind of trade-off. In exchange for releasing Pope, [the Kremlin] will expect softer relations from the new American administration."