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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Easy to Get in Mess, Hard to Get Out

MTEdmund Pope speaking with his lawyer, Pavel Astakhov, from the defendant's cage in a Moscow court on Sept. 19, 2000. He calls his conviction and pardon on espionage charges a nightmare.
Edmond Pope considers himself lucky to have escaped 20 years in prison. But the U.S. businessman says he can do nothing about the nightmares that started with his arrest on espionage charges in 2000.

"I enjoy life here, but my days in Lefortovo jail will remain with me the rest of my life," Pope, 61, said by telephone from Bellefonte, Pennsylvania.

Pope, who owned two companies brokering the sale of Russian technology, spent 253 days locked up in Moscow's Lefortovo jail after his arrest on April 3, 2000. A court went on to convict him of acquiring classified blueprints of high-speed torpedoes, and he was freed under a presidential amnesty on Dec. 14.

It is rather easy for foreigners to get into trouble in Russia, even if they are not interested in torpedo blueprints, said Pavel Astakhov, the lawyer who defended Pope.

Igor Tabakov / MT
A reporter being detained at a city rally in April. Demand a written statement from the arresting officer, lawyers say.
Getting out is not so simple -- even with the best legal advice money can buy.

Astakhov said one of his clients, a German businessman, was detained at Sheremetyevo Airport because he forgot to declare 4,500 euros. A court eventually cleared him, saying prosecutors had failed to prove criminal intent.

In another instance, in March 2004, Novorossiisk customs officials detained Angel Angelov, a Bulgarian truck driver, for carrying three boxes of medication containing phenobarbital, a barbiturate used to treat seizures. Although the medicine had been prescribed by his doctor, Angelov was accused of trafficking in illegal drugs, an offense punishable by seven years in prison. He was released before trial when investigators, again, failed to prove criminal intent.

The Detention

Fyodor Savintsev / Itar-Tass
Inmates watching television in a cell at Moscow's Butyrka prison. Overcrowding is an issue in the country's prisons.
The experience of being thrust into the criminal justice system, however, is not easy for suspects to forget.

Pope said he felt shock and confusion when he was detained, and the feeling remained throughout the ordeal.

"I was working closely and formally with the Russian Ministry of Defense on the very technology that I was accused of spying on," he said.

Despite the shock, it is important to be calm at the moment of detention and not let officials scare or blackmail you, said Anatoly Pchelintsev, a lawyer who defended U.S. citizen Andrew Okhotin, who was arrested in March 2003 at Sheremetyevo Airport for not declaring $48,000 in cash.

Okhotin said in an interview with The Moscow Times at the time that a customs official gave him two options: be jailed immediately or pay $10,000 and walk free.

In a situation like this, the person facing arrest should demand that the arresting officer draw up a statement of the case, Astakhov said. The report should include the place, the time and the reasons for detention, as well as the officer's name and identification number. Marking the exact time is essential because a suspect can only be held in custody for 48 hours without a court order and has the right to meet a prosecutor within 12 hours, he said.

By law, a foreigner has the right to communicate with his country's embassy. Most countries do not cover lawyer fees but offer assistance finding a lawyer and making sure the foreigner's rights are protected. If the suspect has no money, the state provides a lawyer at no cost.

Igor Tabakov / MT
A cell corner where inmates bathe and go to the toilet in a Vologda prison.
The right to an interpreter is one that never should be ignored, Astakhov said, adding that he knew of a Dagestani national who was released because no interpreter could be found who spoke his native Lak language. A foreigner who doesn't trust his interpreter can ask for a new one.

Pope's initial interpreter was an employee of the FSB investigations department, and Astakhov requested that he be replaced. "I know English pretty well, and I heard inaccuracies here and there," Astakhov said.

Okhotin, the American detained at Sheremetyevo, was eventually handed a suspended sentence, and the court confiscated the money, a donation for a Protestant church.

The Investigation

Suspects are often freed pending trial under the condition that they not leave town. In Pope's case, however, the court ruled that the charges were too serious to release him and sent him to Lefortovo, infamous as the KGB's main prison and off-limits to journalists since 1993.

Yury Mashkov / Itar-Tass
A defendant is usually handcuffed when taken to and from court if his purported crime is deemed particularly serious.
Detained foreigners in Moscow are usually sent to the Medvedkovo detention facility during the pretrial investigation.

Many foreigners do not know the jail rules, so it is easy for guards to take advantage of them, said Igor Trunov, a lawyer who has visited clients in Medvedkovo many times. A French client's wife, he said, was told to pay $200 per month for her husband to watch television, go for walks, and get better treatment from the guards. Guards are known for hassling prisoners by conducting frequent inspections of their possessions and confiscating necessities they deem illegal.

"Foreigners know nothing about their rights, and they pay," Trunov said, adding that guards can collect $2,000 per month from a 10-person cell.

The payoffs, however, are made through middlemen, usually other prisoners, and are impossible to connect to the guards, he said.

All foreigners used to be sent to Medvedkovo, which is relatively clean compared with other detention facilities in the country. But under a law that came into force in July, foreigners can now be sent to any facility.

The treatment of prisoners in detention facilities can be cruel and comparable to torture, according to the Council of Europe, the continent's human rights watchdog.

In a complaint filed with the German Embassy, German citizen Egor Schneider wrote that his detention cell in the southern city of Astrakhan had eight beds where 12 people lived with rats and bedbugs. He said that during a stay in the facility's hospital, he was forced to share dishes and bathwater with people with skin and venereal diseases.

Pope said he slept little over a three-week period after a man who snored loudly was placed in his cell. "It was virtually impossible to sleep with him in the cell," he said.

Pope spoke of ever-changing cellmates, some of whom were hustled away by guards and returned bruised and beaten, with stories of having been given drugs.

Pope said he was not physically abused, possibly because of the high-profile nature of his case.

He said the guards told of a man who committed suicide by jumping from an upper floor, but rumors swirled that he had been thrown or pushed over the railing.

"I continue to experience nightmares regularly," Pope said.

The Trial

The trial can last anywhere from a single day to more than a year. Pope's hearings lasted six weeks. Schneider's trial stretched out almost a year, with months-long breaks for a judge who complained of illness, said his lawyer, Pyotr Kireyev.

If the suspect was jailed pending the trial, he must sit in a barred defendant's cage in the courtroom. If the suspect was free ahead of the trial, he can sit in the open courtroom unless the judge orders otherwise. In going to and from the court, handcuffs are usually placed on suspects whose purported crimes are deemed particularly serious.

A defendant has the right to testify and make a closing statement. But he can only choose between a trial by jury or a panel of judges if he has been charged with a crime punishable by more than 10 years in prison. Lighter crimes are automatically heard by judges. "Of course, a jury trial is better for the suspect because it is more independent from the state, and there are more chances for the suspect to be acquitted," said Viktor Smilyanets, a lawyer with 25 years' experience.

If acquitted, defendants are usually freed immediately in the courtroom. When Pope was pardoned, the authorities did not want him to talk to reporters, he said, so they put him in a U.S. Embassy vehicle at Lefortovo and sent him with a police escort straight to Sheremetyevo, where a small plane was waiting in a remote area of the airport.

Chances of being acquitted are very low in comparison to the West. About 15 percent of trials end in acquittals in Europe, compared with 3 percent in Russia, according to figures from the Supreme Court.

Trunov put the number of acquittals in Moscow at less than 1 percent and said 30 percent of inmates in Russia are innocent. "If a suspect ends up in court, he can pretty much count on going to prison," he said.

The Incarceration

Most foreigners were sent to a special prison in Mordovia to serve out their sentences before the law changed in July. Now they can be placed in any prison.

Of the more than 1 million inmates in the country, some 23,000 are foreigners, according to the Federal Prison Service. Most foreigners are from other former Soviet republics, while Europeans account for 7.8 percent of the total and North Americans account for 2.6 percent.

A convict usually is transferred from the detention center to prison within two weeks of the verdict, said Alexander Sidorov, spokesman for the Federal Prison Service. But those who wish to appeal are kept in detention until all appeals are exhausted.

The transfer to prison is always in a special, guarded train compartment, Sidorov said.

Prison conditions are similar to those in detention facilities, with prisoners able to obtain food, television, reading and work privileges in exchange for cash. Inmates are allowed access to lawyers, to file complaints and to meet relatives several times a year.

After serving their sentences, prisoners are handed back their passports, which are kept with the documents from their criminal cases.

For Pope, the U.S. Embassy prepared a temporary passport because the FSB kept his original. "I am still not sure if they returned it or not," Pope said.

Smilyanets said his clients usually turned to their embassies after being released and were given assistance buying plane tickets out of the country. The small private plane Pope left on was rented by the U.S. government from a German company, Pope said.

The law allows prisoners to win early release for good behavior after two-thirds of their sentence has been served. But they have little hope of getting out any earlier. President Vladimir Putin pardoned only nine prisoners last year. In contrast, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko pardoned 1,018 in 2006, Interfax reported.

These days Pope is researching technologies in turbine power and powder metals. He likes to vacation in Alaska. But he feels no gratitude to Putin for his freedom because, he said, he was convicted for a crime that was not committed. He said the blueprints were in the public domain.

"I still think often of what it would have been like to live the remainder of my life in Russian prison," Pope said. "My life would have been very short, and I certainly would be dead before today."