RAMSTEIN, Germany -- Edmond Pope, newly pardoned by Russia's president after a spy conviction he had vigorously rejected, flew to freedom in Germany on Thursday, ending a "horrible nightmare" that cast a pall on U.S.-Russia relations.
Pope, the first American convicted of espionage in Russia in 40 years, landed at Ramstein Air Force base in Germany hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered him released from Moscow's Lefortovo prison.
"I'm glad to finally be free," Pope was quoted as saying in a voiceover by Russia's state-controlled ORT television. "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, who has suffered in the past from a rare form of bone cancer and whose health deteriorated while in jail, was convicted by a Moscow court last week and sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges he illegally obtained plans for a top-secret Russian Navy torpedo.
Pope maintained his innocence, saying the plans he purchased were not secret and that the technology had already been sold abroad and published. Pope sent a letter to Putin asking for clemency on the eve of his conviction, said his wife, Cheri.
A Putin spokesman told The Associated Press that the Russian leader pardoned Pope on humanitarian grounds and 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."
President 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.
Said Pope's mother, Elizabeth: "It's 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," she told the AP from her home in Grants Pass, Ore.
While in prison, Pope had lost about 25 pounds and two teeth, probably due to the poor food, Cheri Pope said.
Russia's Security Service, the agency that prosecuted Pope, said a prison doctor examined him before his release and pronounced his health "normal."
Pope, of State College, Pa., was being transferred from the Ramstein base, 85 miles southwest of Frankfurt, to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a U.S. military facility about two miles from the base.
Putin, meanwhile, arrived in Cuba late Wednesday for a visit to the former communist ally. He had indicated last week that he would release Pope, and Thursday was the first day that Putin could pardon Pope under Russian law.
Liliya Shevtsova, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, suggested that Putin had pardoned Pope in hopes of favorable treatment by U.S. President-elect George W. Bush. "It looks like there was some kind of trade-off," he said, adding that Pope's guilt "clearly was not proven."
"We regret this decision wasn't made during the judicial process," Pope's lawyer, Pavel Astakhov said. "But freedom is the main thing that Pope needs now."
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