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A Russian court slashed the sentence of an American Fulbright scholar convicted on drug charges from 37 months to a year Thursday, amid sustained protests by his family and U.S. lawmakers about his imprisonment. John Tobin’s case has attracted wide attention since Russian security officials publicly accused the 24-year-old of being a spy in training. No espionage charges were filed, and Tobin has said he was framed because he refused to become a spy for Russia. Tobin, of Ridgefield, Conn., was convicted April 27 in Voronezh, 500 kilometers (300 miles) south of Moscow, on charges of illegally obtaining, possessing and distributing marijuana. He has insisted on his innocence. The Voronezh Regional Court confirmed the local court’s conviction for obtaining and possessing drugs, but overturned the conviction for distribution, Tobin’s lawyer Maxim Bayev said. Tobin has already served four months of the one-year sentence. Russia’s NTV television showed footage of a pale but smiling Tobin shaking hands with his lawyer through the bars of the courtroom cage, where defendants in Russian trials sit. The decision to slash the sentence was unusual in Russia, where the overwhelming majority of trials end in conviction and appeals are often fruitless. “A higher court rarely overturns or changes anything,” said Karina Moskalenko, a prominent Moscow human rights lawyer. It was unclear whether the court was influenced by the flurry of protest activity by Tobin supporters, including a meeting planned Thursday between U.S. congressional Representative James Maloney and the Russian ambassador to the United States. Tobin’s father welcomed the reduced sentence. “We’re absolutely thrilled with it,” John Tobin Sr. said from Ridgefield. “Everybody’s work over 120-something days has paid off.” The father, who last week visited the dingy jail in Voronezh, said he hopes to have his son home by the end of the month. Bayev said he would advise his client against seeking a pardon, as he was certain Tobin would be freed under an amnesty that he said the government would announce for Russian Independence Day on June 12. “He’ll be home in two weeks,” Bayev said by telephone from Voronezh. “Why bother the president?” However, the deputy head of the Russian prison system, Oleg Filimonov, said he did not expect parliament to pass the amnesty in time for the holiday. Maloney, a Democrat who accompanied Tobin’s father to Voronezh, called Thursday’s decision “a very positive step in the right direction.” He said in Washington that he would continue to press for an early release when he meets with the ambassador. The ruling opens the way for Tobin’s transfer from the Voronezh city jail to a prison colony where he will serve out the rest of his sentence. The transfer is to take place within six days, the Interfax news agency said. The prison where Tobin is expected to be sent is in Mordovia, about 700 kilometers (420 miles) east of Moscow, and is designated for foreign prisoners. It holds about 400 inmates, most of them from Africa or Asia, and about 80 percent of them serving sentences on drug charges. The prisoners sleep in dormitories, rather than cells, and can work at the colony’s sewing shop where they make military uniforms for which they’re paid 7 rubles (24 cents) a day. In sharp contrast to the overcrowded, disease-ridden condition of most Russian prisons, each dormitory has a television with VCR, and the colony has a small library of videotapes. It has a one-room library with paperback books in about 20 languages. Tobin, a graduate of Middlebury College, was doing political research at a university in Voronezh when he was arrested outside a local nightclub in January. The Federal Security Service, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, alleged that Tobin had connections with U.S. intelligence, using as evidence his studies at the elite Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., and military training at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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