MOSCOW - President Vladimir Putin on Thursday pardoned an American businessman who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison on espionage charges, clearing the way for him to go home, the Kremlin said.
The Interfax news agency said Edmond Pope of State College, Pa., was released from Lefortovo prison. Associated Press reporters saw two cars escorted by police speeding away from the prison, where he had been held for more than eight months. But it was unclear who was in the cars.
A presidential spokesman told AP that Putin had pardoned Pope. A U.S. Embassy doctor was expected to check Pope's health and determine whether he was well enough to fly to the United States.
Pope's imprisonment and conviction last week on charges of obtaining plans for a top-secret Russian Navy torpedo prompted a diplomatic confrontation between Washington and Moscow. The U.S. government criticized the court that convicted Pope, with observers saying it was heavily biased in favor of the Russian security services.
It was the first time in 40 years that an American had been convicted of espionage in Russia. The case has raised questions about the growing power of the security services in Russia, and fueled fears among foreigners trying to do business there.
Pope has protested his innocence, saying that the plans he purchased were not secret and that the technology had already been sold abroad and published in open sources.
Putin, who is on a visit to Cuba, had indicated last week that he would release Pope on humanitarian grounds. Thursday was the first day that Putin could pardon Pope under Russian law.
''It is impossible to overestimate this act of mercy,'' Pope's lawyer, Pavel Astakhov, told the Interfax news agency.
''Freedom is the only thing that Pope needs at this moment,'' Astakhov said, though he expressed frustration that Pope was convicted in the first place.
Pope's wife Cheri went to the prison early Thursday along with U.S. Embassy officers. A clutch of reporters and TV crews waited at the gates of the high-security prison, which is surrounded by a cinderblock wall topped with coiled, barbed wire.
Jennifer Bennett, a spokesman for Rep. John Peterson of Pennsylvania, said earlier Thursday that every effort would be made to get Pope back home as quickly as possible.
She said that if a doctor found that Pope was not well enough to return home immediately, he would be taken to a hospital in Europe.