AMERICAN student Tobin returns to Moscow after early release from Russian prison

Saturday, August 4th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MOSCOW (AP) _ Free after six months behind bars in provincial Russia, American Fulbright scholar John Tobin pulled into Moscow on an overnight train Saturday and prepared for his journey home to the United States.

After his release on parole from a one-year drug sentence, Tobin arrived in the Russian capital from Voronezh, the southern city where he was arrested in January in a case that became an irritant in U.S.-Russian relations.

Looking gaunt and with his hair cropped short like most prisoners in Russia, Tobin unloaded boxes and bags of books and belongings from the train at Moscow's Paveletsky Station, watched by a half-dozen members of Russia's OMON special troops.

Tobin, 24, declined to comment to reporters before he was escorted away by U.S. Embassy representatives.

Before Tobin can leave Russia, he needs an exit visa, said his representative in the U.S. Congress, James Maloney. All Americans and many other foreigners in Russia need entry and exit visas.

Maloney and Tobin's father were to arrive in Moscow on a flight Sunday. Maloney said Tobin would likely leave Russia on Tuesday or Wednesday.

``We think it's important that he be accompanied back from Moscow to New York. His father and I think that is important for Jack's security,'' Maloney told a news conference Saturday in Connecticut.

Tobin has called his father, mother and girlfriend from Moscow, and was in good spirits but fatigued, Maloney said.

A court on Friday freed Tobin halfway through his sentence, a day after a parole board recommended him for release. Local court and prison officials said he was a model inmate _ but they also appeared weary of the attention and controversy the case brought.

Soon after the decision, Tobin, looking pale and thinner than during his trial, walked out of the gates of the shabby, Soviet-era prison in the town of Rossosh near Voronezh. Flashing a brief smile, he wore blue jeans and toted his belongings in two plastic shopping bags.

His father, John Tobin Sr., beamed as he held up a copy of a photo showing his son leaving the prison.

``That's the best smile I've seen from him since last summer,'' the father said at his home in Connecticut. ``It's beginning to be a relief. I can sleep.''

Tobin was doing political science research at a Voronezh university when he was arrested in January as he left a local nightclub. He was convicted in April of obtaining, possessing and distributing marijuana and was sentenced to three years in prison.

A higher court, however, overturned the distribution conviction and reduced the sentence to one year.

The case attracted wider attention when local officials of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, charged that Tobin was a spy in training, citing his studies at the elite Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. No espionage charges were filed, however, and Tobin said he was framed on the drug charges because he refused to work for Russian intelligence.

The FSB is the main successor to the KGB, the Soviet-era secret police and spy agency.

Tobin's case was taken up by members of Congress from Connecticut, who wrote to Russian officials and pressed President Bush to take up the case in his meetings with President Vladimir Putin.

The case also sparked an outpouring of support in his hometown of Ridgefield, with supporters tying yellow ribbons on old-fashioned lamp posts, circulating petitions and holding benefit concerts.