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In Voronezh, Russia, an American Fulbright scholar was sentenced to 37 months in prison on drug charges in a verdict his lawyer said was influenced by accusations from Russia’s secret services that he was a spy in training. John Tobin, 24, firmly asserted his innocence, and the trial was complicated by a prosecutor who said police apparently doctored reports in the case and who asked for the most serious charges against him to be thrown out. But Tobin was found guilty of obtaining, possessing and distributing marijuana. He was arrested Jan. 26 outside a nightclub in Voronezh and police said he had a small matchbox containing marijuana and that a small packet of the drug was found in a book in a search of his apartment. The arrest attracted little attention until about a month later, when the Federal Security Service stated publicly that Tobin, who was studying at Voronezh State University under a grant, was apparently training to be an espionage agent. Although he was not charged with spying, “the social fuss that has been pumped up by certain law enforcement officials could not but influence the attitude toward this case and the way it was investigated,” his attorney Maxim Bayev said after the verdict. The accusation of Tobin’s intelligence connections came about a week after the United States’ arrest of FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen on charges of spying for Russia, which escalated tensions over espionage between Washington and Moscow. Tobin, a graduate of Middlebury College, had studied at a U.S. military school and at the U.S. Defense Language Institute. “I am a student. I came here to study. I don’t have anything to do with drugs,” Tobin said in his final statement to the court, speaking from the metal cage in which defendants are kept in Russian trials. Four hours later, Judge Tatyana Korchagina read the verdict in a courtroom packed with journalists, supporters and curious Voronezh residents. Tobin stood with his hands behind his back, appearing to listen attentively, but showing no reaction. Bayev said he would appeal the sentence and demand in particular that the conviction for distribution be overturned because it was not upheld by the evidence. He also said that he would also protest the quality of the investigation. Earlier in the trial, the prosecutor had accused police of overstating by 10 times the amount of marijuana allegedly found on Tobin — from 0.148 grams in the initial report to 1.48 grams later — and asked for the dropping of charges of running a drug den and obtaining and possessing drugs as part of a criminal gang, which carried sentences of up to 15 years. “The position of the prosecutor’s office … is telling,” Bayev told reporters. After the verdict, Pavel Bolshunov, spokesman for the Voronezh branch of the Federal Security Service, said the agency was still interested in learning more about Tobin. “Was he just studying here or was he doing something else?” Bolshunov said. “He did not violate anything (in terms of state security), he just behaved strangely.” A small group of young demonstrators stood outside the court with signs reading “Say no to American drugs.” Tobin’s supporters — students and professors from Voronezh State University — said they would try to help him by writing letters and gathering signatures in his behalf. “You always hope for the best, and in that sense, the verdict came unexpectedly, but not all is lost,” said 24-year-old Dmitry Zornikov, who had been in a band with Tobin, who plays the bass guitar, during the American’s first visit to Voronezh in 1998. Severe sentences for possessing small amounts of drugs are not unusual in Russia, even for first offenders, said Karina Moskalenko, a prominent defense attorney and human rights activist in Moscow. “There are countries that take a strictly punitive view, and my country is one of them,” she said. “I often see cases where people get long sentences for measly small amounts of drugs.” Russian law defines more than 0.1 grams of marijuana as a “large amount,” according to Moskalenko. Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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