Back From A Moscow Nightmare

John Tobin, surrounded by Interior Ministry officers, walks out of a prison colony in Rossosh Russia
U.S. student John Tobin, freed from a Russian jail sentence on drug charges amid hints of espionage, arrived in the United States after being paroled half way through his sentence.

"It's great to be back in the land of the free," the 24-year-old told a news conference at Kennedy International Airport shortly after his return on a plane from Moscow Wednesday. "I never felt alone in (jail). I could feel the blessings and good will of the people back here supporting me."

Tobin, accompanied by his father, John, and Connecticut Democratic Rep. James Maloney, both of whom fought for his release, landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York after leaving Moscow earlier in the day.

Tobin's departure removed an irritant to U.S.-Russian relations over the past six months. President Bush had raised the case at his summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in June.

Standing on the curb at Sheremetyevo-2 airport before boarding, Tobin said he was looking forward to seeing family and friends and that the thing he most wanted when he got back was a hamburger.

“I'm real happy to being going home, everybody, and I look forward to seeing all my friends and family,” Tobin said, smiling. He wore an off-white shirt and black pants, and dragged a large green duffel bag and had a smaller black one slung over his shoulder.

Tobin was accompanied by embassy officials, his father, John Tobin Sr., and James Maloney, who represents Tobin's home district in Connecticut and had campaigned for the Fulbright scholar's release.

His father 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.

The younger Tobin told reporters he would hold a question-and-answer session once he returned to the United States.

He said he would “to rest and relax and catch up on all the news back home.”

“It will be interesting to share some of my experiences and hear the experiences of others who saw this from the other side,” Tobin said.

Russian authorities released Tobin on Friday after the 24-year-old had served half of a one-year sentence on charges of possession of marijuana. Tobin has denied the charges and pleaded innocent.

His departure removes a major irritant in U.S.-Russian relations over the past six months.

“I think U.S. Russian relations have made some progress in part through this release,” Maloney said. “I think there's follow-up that needs to be done with regard to other issues, but I think this is a good development.”

Following his release from prison in the small southern Russian town of Rossosh, Tobin traveled to Moscow, where he concluded the paperwork needed to get a Russian exit visa.

Russian officials arrested Tobin in January in Voronezh, where he was studying at the local university, for possession of marijuana. The case gained wide attention after an official f the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the KGB, said the American was believed to be training to be a spy.

The initial charges against Tobin included allegations he had operated a drug den and had obtained marijuana as part of a criminal gang.

However, the prosecutor in the trial accused police of overstating the amount of drugs Tobin was found with and recommended those charges be dropped.

Tobin was sentenced to 37 months for possession. A higher court reduced that sentence to a year and he became eligible for parole after serving half that sentence.

Tobin was freed after authorities at the prison colony in Rossosh recommended the move.

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