LANDSTUHL, Germany - Pardoned by Russia after being convicted of espionage, U.S. businessman Edmond Pope flew to freedom in Germany on Thursday and declared, ''It's great to be back in the real world.''
Looking tired, Pope clutched an American flag and held his wife tightly as he shouted to reporters from a balcony at the U.S. military's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.
Pope, 54, the first American convicted of espionage in Russia in 40 years, arrived at Ramstein Air Base in Germany hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered him released from Moscow's Lefortovo prison. Just last week, he had been sentenced to 20 years in jail.
Since his April 3 arrest, he has steadfastly maintained his innocence on charges that he illegally obtained plans for a Russian navy torpedo, saying what he purchased was not secret because the technology already had been sold abroad. Pope sent a letter to Putin asking for clemency on the eve of his conviction, his wife said.
Denied visits with her husband since the Dec. 6 verdict, Cheri Pope went to the prison Thursday morning only hoping to see him, said Jennifer Bennett, spokeswoman for Rep. John Peterson of Pennsylvania. But two hours later, she and her husband were leaving the country on a chartered plane.
The Russian Security Service said Pope was given his personal belongings and a chance to ask questions about the pardon. He had none, the service said.
Pope was quoted by Russia's state-controlled ORT television as being concerned about the diplomatic implications of his ordeal. ''On the one hand, I'm glad, on the other, I regret that it happened like this. I wouldn't want to damage Russian-American relations.''
His release came hours after George W. Bush accepted victory in the presidential election; some experts suggested Russia made the move in the hopes of garnering the president-elect's favor.
A Putin spokesman told The Associated Press the Russian leader pardoned Pope for humanitarian reasons, and to preserve good relations with Washington. The pardon cited ''the health condition of the convict and his personal appeal, and also ... the high level of ties between the Russian Federation and the United States of America.''
President Clinton, traveling in England, welcomed the release, saying, ''it is important that humanitarian considerations prevailed in the end.''
Pope - who has suffered from a rare form of bone cancer - was to have a complete medical examination before heading home, Landstuhl commander Col. Elder Granger said.
''He's in great spirits. When he got here, he requested a cup of black coffee and to talk to a chaplain,'' Granger said. ''At this point he looks healthy and does not appear malnourished.''
Pope reportedly lost 25 pounds during his 253 days in jail, but gained some of the weight back after his wife and U.S. Embassy officials began bringing him food, said Peterson.
Pope's family became concerned that his cancer - in remission when he initially traveled to Russia on business - had returned after a lump appeared in his neck and he began suffering back pain, Bennett said. He was to have thorough cancer screening at Landstuhl, she said.
Landstuhl, about 85 miles southwest of Frankfurt, has become a way station for Americans in trouble since the end of the Cold War - from sailors injured in this year's terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen to soldiers hurt in 1993 fighting in Somalia.
From the hospital, Pope called family and friends in Grants Pass, Ore., where his mother, Elizabeth Pope, is caring for his ailing father. His two grown sons and a business partner are also there, waiting for him to arrive, Bennett said.
''I will be much happier when I see him and I am able to put my arms around him,'' his mother told AP. ''It's like waking up from a horrible nightmare.''
Keith McClellan, a partner in Pope's business, TechSource Marine Industries of State College, Pa., said Pope sounded like he was ''in great spirits'' during a telephone call.
''I could see the smile on his face all the way through the phone. He was thankful for all the support that we were able to give him from this end,'' McClellan said.
Putin, who was on a state visit to Cuba at the time of Pope's release, had indicated last week that he would likely follow a recommendation from his pardons commission to grant clemency.
Liliya Shevtsova, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, suggested Putin had pardoned Pope in hopes of favorable treatment by Bush. ''It looks like there was some kind of trade-off,'' he said, adding that Pope's guilt ''clearly was not proven.''