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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An American, a Little Marijuana, a Big Fuss

VORONEZH, Central Russia — Is he a spy in training? Or merely a smart kid who talked himself into trouble?

A number of questions hang over the case of American Fulbright scholar John Tobin, who was detained outside a night club on Jan. 26 for alleged possession of a matchbox of marijuana. He faces a four-year sentence when a verdict is announced Friday.

Marijuana, though illegal, is commonly used throughout the country, so the zeal with which prosecutors came down on Tobin surprised many. Prosecutors initially filed charges carrying sentences of 15 to 20 years, which were reduced Wednesday to three to four years.

Some say the Federal Security Service may have played a big role in firing up the investigation. The FSB said shortly after Tobin, 24, was arrested that they believed he was training to be a spy at Voronezh State University, where he was studying. Tobin had also studied at a U.S. military school and learned to speak fluent Russian at the elite Defense Language Institute in California.

No espionage charges were ever filed, although the Voronezh department of the FSB spoke often and willingly to the press about its suspicions.

"He probably wasn't studying how to bake pies," Pavel Bolshunov, a spokesman for the FSB in Voronezh, said by telephone Thursday.

"We looked into what such an interesting person was doing in Voronezh," he said, adding, "Foreign students don't come under any more suspicion than our own citizens."

Bolshunov denied, however, that the FSB had played any part in influencing the police's decision to lock Tobin up on Feb. 1, when Tobin was arrested after failing to appear for questioning.

"The investigator had suspicions when he didn't show up for questioning that he might hail a passing car and head to Moscow," Bolshunov said.

A friend of Tobin's said spying and foreigners no doubt go together like bread and butter in the eyes of regional investigators.

"It seems that spying is a traditional suspicion when foreigners are arrested," she said on condition of anonymity for fear of being prosecuted by Voronezh police.

Political experts pointed out that the arrest came about a week after FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen was charged with spying for Russia and Washington and Moscow exchanged tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats.

"I think that in a strange way it resembles a countermove," said Andrei Ryabov of the Moscow Carnegie Center. "It comes right on the heels of the spy-related deportation of diplomats … [and] coincides with the exacerbation of relations between the U.S. and Russia over spymania."

He added: "As far as drugs go, it is strange that a suspected spy would be doing an unsophisticated drug in the same manner as a student."

Another theory over Tobin's arrest is that Voronezh authorities may have been eager for a headline-grabbing follow-up to their arrest last spring of a Nigerian student and a Russian woman on charges of smuggling heroin.

"We arrest people if they break the law, like the Nigerian student last year," said the FSB's Bolshunov.

Another possibility is that Tobin ended up on trial because a Voronezh resident wanted vengeance. At the two-day trial, which wrapped up Wednesday, a witness testified that he had called the police on Tobin.

Sergei Shipelkevich told the court that he had asked Tobin for a cigarette outside the club and Tobin had insulted him. Shipelkevich called over two nearby police officers to complain, and they then searched Tobin and found the marijuana in a matchbox in his pocket.

Diederik Lohman of Humans Rights Watch in Moscow said no one may ever know what really happened.

"It is all speculation," he said. "You might stumble upon a reason that makes sense. It could be related to just about anything, defense, the people he was hanging out with."