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Russian security service rules out spy charges for U.S. student

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March 1, 2001 


MOSCOW-(AP) - A day after publicizing the drug arrest of what it called an agent-in-training for American intelligence, Russia's Federal Security Service said Wednesday that no espionage charges would be filed.

The agency had suggested that John Edward Tobin, a 24-year-old native of Ridgefield, Connecticut, had U.S. intelligence training. It said his arrest showed that potential spies could be found even under cover of exchange students.

But a spokesman for the Federal Security Service, known by its Russian acronym FSB, stressed on Wednesday that Tobin faced only drug charges.

"He didn't ever carry out any spying activity on Russian territory. We don't have any claims on him," said Pavel Bolshunov, an FSB spokesman in Voronezh, the central Russian city where Tobin has been jailed.

Tobin was detained at a nightclub on Jan. 26, and was formally arrested on Feb. 1 for possession of 4.5 grams (0.15 ounces) of marijuana. But Bolshunov said Wednesday that Tobin might also be charged with distributing marijuana.

Under Russian law, this could mean either selling the drug or offering it free to friends. Tobin faces three years in prison if he is convicted of possession and seven if he is convicted of distributing marijuana.

"The bags of narcotics were small, but by our laws it was enough to open a criminal case. This is not Holland, we have strict laws," Bolshunov said.

Bolshunov said the FSB "allowed itself to comment on the case," which he described as "small," because it found Tobin's alleged background as a U.S. army soldier trained in Russian language and interrogation suspicious. He said Tuesday that the FSB believed Tobin was an interrogation specialist who had been sent to Russia for additional country and language training.

Bolshunov said it was an embarrassment that the alleged U.S. agent-in-training was caught apparently smoking marijuana while on a study assignment in a foreign country.

"He discredited very serious institutions that might stand behind him," Bolshunov said.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent security and defense analyst in Moscow, said the suggestion of espionage links was a warning for foreign organizations working in Russia, such as the Fulbright exchange program.

"Those who sent him can be accused of being accomplices in spying activity, even if they have no access to secret information," he said. He said the arrest reflected anti-American sentiment among midlevel officials in Russia's security establishment.

Tobin was doing research for a political science thesis on Russia's transition to democracy at the Voronezh State University, 475 kilometers (300 miles) south of Moscow.

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