(CNSNews.com) - The United States on Wednesday described as "unjustified and wrong" the sentencing of an American businessman by Russia to 20 years' imprisonment on espionage charges, and called for his release on humanitarian grounds.
U.S. leaders were stunned after a Moscow court, during a six-week closed trial reminiscent of Cold War days, found Edmond Pope guilty of illegally obtaining classified blueprints of a high-speed Russian torpedo.
If the sentence is even partially carried out, it could mean death for the 54-year-old Pope, who suffers from a rare form of bone cancer, his family said. Russian officials have repeatedly denied Pope access to treatment and evaluations by competent doctors during pre-trial confinement since his arrest in April.
The state Department joined the White House in insisting there was no evidence to support "Pope's unjustified conviction and sentencing," and called for his release.
"As we have said in the past, we have seen no evidence that Mr. Pope violated any Russian laws. The verdict is hardly surprising given the inability of Pope's lawyers to introduce evidence at the trial. Mr. Pope's health has deteriorated sharply over the past nine months in prison, which we observed again yesterday in our consular visit," a spokesman said.
Rep. John Peterson (R-Penn.), who has led the campaign for Pope's release on Capitol Hill, currently is accompanying Cheri Pope, the defendant's wife, and chief defense lawyer Pavel Astakhov, in a visit to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
"Basically, they're trying to find out where we go from here," said Bob Ferguson, Peterson's chief of staff.
In a statement, Peterson condemned the verdict and said the Pope family was "devastated by the outcome." He also repeated his concern for Pope's health.
"Although the verdict was not unexpected, we were hopeful that the defense presented would have resulted in a more favorable ruling. Therefore, because of concerns about Ed's deteriorating health and the danger of his dying in prison, both I and Mrs. Pope appeal to President Putin and the people of Russia to release Mr. Pope on humanitarian grounds," he said.
Peterson called on the administration "to exhaust all diplomatic efforts toward Mr. Pope's release." Pope has seven days to appeal the sentence.
A spokesman for Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said the congressman has called on President Clinton in the past on Pope's behalf and did so again Wednesday.
"We're urging the administration to keep this Pope situation at the top of the foreign policy agenda until he's released," Jeff Eager said. "The State Department believes his condition is worsening. His health is not good and given his pre-existing bone cancer problem, there would be serious health risks keeping him in prison there, especially during the winter."
Pleading innocence at his trial, the former U.S. Navy officer and founder of CERF Technologies International said he operated in Russia under a contract with a Moscow technical institute and the torpedo plans were not secret because they had already been sold abroad and published. The Ukraine, Kirghizia and Kazakhstan already possess the technology, Pope said.
Pope a Pawn in U.S.-Russian Rivalry
Some trial observers said they were not shocked at the outcome, given the deteriorated state of U.S.-Russian relations.
"At this point the Russians feel they have nothing to lose by handing down this sentence," said a source familiar with the case who requested anonymity. "They detest Clinton. They don't like Madeleine Albright at all. They don't like any of these people and they don't trust them. They have even canceled the deal promising not to sell arms to Iran."
In addition, the Russians see the election fiasco in Florida "in terms of, the United States is so messed up we can't even elect our own president. Therefore, we have a very divided Congress and we have very little chance of anything getting through. If that's the case, it's not very helpful for Mr. Pope."
However, U.S. officials have had signals from reliable Russian sources during the course of the trial that Putin has to let the FSB - the successor of the KGB - have its day in court before he can intervene. Once the trial is over, Putin can exercise his executive authority to give Pope clemency, Russian sources said.
Over-reaction on the part of Americans could only hurt Pope. "Bashing the Russians publicly might only increase their resolve not to let Pope go," the source said.