AMERICAN student John Tobin back home from Russia after parole on drug charge

Thursday, August 9th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ American student John Tobin, back on U.S. soil and looking forward to his first hamburger in six months, said overcoming fear of the unknown was his greatest challenge while imprisoned in Russia on a drug charge.

``I was most frightened in the beginning. I didn't know what charges were going to be brought against me,'' Tobin said Wednesday at a press conference at Kennedy International Airport upon his return from Moscow.

A tired Tobin, who had lost some weight in jail and sported a close-cropped prison haircut, answered questions briefly before leaving for a rendezvous with family and friends.

After his January arrest in Voronezh, where he was studying at the local university, the Fulbright scholar was initially charged with operating a drug den and obtaining marijuana as part of a criminal gang. Tobin denied the charge.

The case gained wide attention after an official of the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the KGB, said the American was believed to be training to be a spy.

Tobin's release removed a diplomatic irritant between the United States and Russia. In June, President Bush had raised the case during his summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Tobin thanked the president, along with his family, friends and other supporters.

``It's great to be back in the land of the free,'' the 24-year-old said.

Tobin said he spent most of his time in a Russian holding facility, but the last six weeks in a Russian work camp. He was ``treated fairly,'' his father told the news conference. ``He wasn't abused.''

His father, John Tobin Sr., has said his son claimed the Russian intelligence service tried to recruit him as an agent and that he believed he was arrested because he had refused.

Tobin was sentenced to 37 months in jail for drug possession. After a higher court reduced that sentence to one year, he became eligible for parole after doing half that time. He was released from jail Friday.

``I never felt alone'' in jail, Tobin said. ``I could feel the blessings and good will of the people back here supporting me.''