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A young American scholar alleged by Russia’s security services to have been a spy in training goes on trial today in Voronezh, Russia, on drug charges that could bring a 30-year jail sentence. John Tobin, a 24-year-old native of Ridgefield, Conn., was detained on Jan. 26 for marijuana possession, but the case gained attention only about a month later, when the Federal Security Service accused him of being an aspiring spy. Tobin, who was studying at Voronezh State University on a Fulbright scholarship, is a graduate of Middlebury College and had studied at a U.S. military intelligence school and at the elite Defense Language Institute. The accusation of intelligence connections came about a week after the United States’ arrest of FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen on charges of spying for Russia escalated tensions over espionage between Washington and Moscow. No espionage charges have been filed. But the initial charges of possessing 0.15 ounces of marijuana have been raised to include dealing drugs as part of an organized group. “These charges have been cooked up in connection with the atmosphere being pumped up around this case,” Tobin’s lawyer Maxim Bayev said. Police investigator Andrei Makarov said Tobin could face up to 30 years in prison if convicted. Makarov said another foreigner allegedly involved in the same gang “is hiding from investigators.” Bayev said that person is an American and that he left Russia before Tobin’s arrest. Bayev said the case against Tobin is based on the testimony of a group of Russian students who are under investigation for a separate crime. He said their testimony was inconsistent, with some saying the drug involved was hashish and other saying it was marijuana. Professors and administrators at Voronezh State University, about 475 kilometers (300 miles) south of Moscow, described Tobin as an excellent linguist and a carefree person who doesn’t fit the profile of a spy. “Jack is a sweet, fun-loving guy,” said Anatoly Leonov, who coordinates Middlebury College’s program at Voronezh. Tobin, who was detained at a Voronezh nightclub, was noted for a fondness for parties, and vice-rector Vladimir Titov said that seemed to make him an unlikely spy in training. “Any intelligence agency carefully chooses its people,” he said. The security service, the FSB, initially said Tobin was an interrogation specialist and had come to Voronezh for language training. Later, the agency said Tobin had not been involved in espionage activities and that the case was a straightforward drug matter for police. But by publicly linking Tobin to U.S. intelligence, authorities seemed to be putting the case on the level of a recent wave of spy cases. After the Hanssen case, the United States said 50 Russian diplomats would be expelled in connection with espionage and Russia retaliated with a call for an equal number of expulsions. Last year, a Moscow court convicted U.S. businessman Edmond Pope of espionage for obtaining plans for a high-speed torpedo. Pope was then pardoned by President Vladimir Putin. A Russian arms control researcher, Igor Sutyagin, is currently on trial on charges of spying for the United States, and a former diplomat, Valentin Moiseyev, stands accused of spying for South Korea. Officials last week accused a Siberian physicist, Valentin Danilov, of spying for China. Critics of the Federal Security Service say the cases are intended to boost the image of the agency and to discourage Russians from maintaining contacts with foreigners. Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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