MOSCOW - The chairman of Russia's presidential pardons commission said Thursday he believes the body will recommend to President Vladimir Putin that he grant clemency to a U.S. businessman convicted of espionage.
Anatoly Pristavkin told reporters the recommendation to pardon Edmond Pope would be made after the commission meets Friday morning. Pope, of State College, Pa., was sentenced Wednesday to 20 years imprisonment in a penal colony.
''I hope the commission will be, as always, humane and will recommend to the head of state to pardon the U.S. citizen Edmond Pope,'' Pristavkin said.
Pristavkin's statement came as Pope's supporters urged the Kremlin to act quickly so the prisoner can receive vital health care. Pope, 54, suffers from a rare form of bone cancer that was in remission when he was arrested in April, but his family fears it has returned during his incarceration in Moscow's grim Lefortovo prison.
Prisoners in Russia generally serve their sentences in penal colonies with shabby facilities and poor food, and insufficient relief from frigid winters and blazing summers. A maximum-security facility increases the misery with a heavy presence of guards and dogs and few opportunities for family visits.
The Moscow court that convicted Pope on Wednesday was seen as rigidly biased in favor of the prosecution. Pope's wife, Cheri, said Thursday the couple has not yet decided whether to appeal the sentence at a higher court, but the two have been pleading for a humanitarian release.
Pope's lawyer, Pavel Astakhov, said that if President Clinton requests clemency for Pope, Moscow will have ''no choice'' but to comply, because Russia had itself received similar favors from other countries in the past.
India freed five Russian pilots who were serving life sentences for weapons smuggling, and sent them back home this summer, after Russian President Vladimir Putin asked for clemency.
''Given this kind of international practice, the political leadership of Russia has no right to say no to the leadership of another country,'' Astakhov said.
''I don't know whether they realize how ill Ed is,'' said U.S. Rep. John Peterson, a Pennsylvania congressman who accompanied Pope's wife to Russia. ''We just hope that they don't waste a lot of time because time could mean the difference in Ed's life.''
Cheri Pope said her husband looked ''very pale,'' with ''gray, green skin'' when she last saw him Wednesday. He suffered from high blood pressure, which alarmed the prison doctor, but had been treated only with aspirin, Cheri Pope said.
''I am hoping and praying right now that President Putin - when he promised us that he would help - that it would be very soon I could take my husband home,'' she told The Associated Press.
Cheri Pope said she had not been allowed to see her husband since the verdict, so the two have been unable to decide whether to challenge the conviction - a process that must be initiated within seven days, according to Russian law.
''I need to talk to my husband,'' Cheri Pope said. ''We need to see what we can do together.''
Pope's wife and their congressman have been meeting daily with U.S. Embassy officials in Moscow, and U.S. State Department officials have been in talks with Russian authorities about the possibility of clemency.
Cheri Pope said her efforts to win her husband's freedom wouldn't stop.
''Every day I try to talk to someone that I think can help,'' she said.
A retired U.S. Navy officer, Pope was convicted of illegally obtaining classified blueprints of a high-speed underwater torpedo, the Shkval. Ever since his April 3 arrest, he has insisted on his innocence, saying that the plans were not secret because they had already been sold abroad and were published in open sources.
Pope is the first U.S. citizen to be convicted of espionage in Russia since U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down in 1960. He was exchanged for a Soviet spy convicted in the United States.
He is the founder of CERF Technologies International, a company specializing in studying foreign maritime equipment.