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American who spied on US for Israel released from prison

Published 20/11/2015

Jonathan Pollard during an interview in a conference room at the Federal Correction Institution in Butner, North Carolina (AP)
Jonathan Pollard during an interview in a conference room at the Federal Correction Institution in Butner, North Carolina (AP)

Convicted spy Jonathan Pollard has been released from prison, culminating an extraordinary espionage case that complicated American-Israeli relations for 30 years and became a bargaining chip between two allies.

Within hours of his release, Pollard's lawyers began a court challenge to terms of his parole that they called "onerous and oppressive", including requiring him to wear an electronic GPS ankle bracelet and the monitoring of any computer he might use personally or at a job.

Pollard was driven away from the federal prison at Butner, North Carolina, before dawn in heavy fog, and Larry Dub, a Pollard lawyer, told Israel's Army Radio that he was being driven to New York City.

"The people of Israel welcome the release of Jonathan Pollard," Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. "As someone who raised Jonathan's case for years with successive American presidents, I had long hoped this day would come."

The federal Bureau of Prisons confirmed that Pollard was no longer in custody but provided no other details.

His release came nearly 30 years to the day after his arrest for providing large amounts of classified US government information to Israel.

"I have waited for this day for 30 long years, unbelievable," his ex-wife Anne told Israel's Army Radio. "It's an amazing moment."

Pollard was granted parole this summer from a life sentence imposed in 1987. His lawyers say they have secured a job and housing for him in the New York area, without elaborating. The terms of his parole require him to remain in the United States for at least five years, though supporters - including Mr Netanyahu and some members of Congress - are seeking permission for him to move to Israel immediately.

His release caps one of the most high-profile spy sagas in modern American history, a case that over the years sharply divided public opinion and became a diplomatic sticking point. Supporters have long maintained that he was punished excessively for actions taken on behalf of an American ally while critics, including government officials, derided him as a traitor who sold out his country.

Pollard, a former US Navy intelligence analyst, was arrested on November 21 1985 after trying unsuccessfully to gain asylum at the Israeli embassy in Washington. He had earlier drawn the suspicion of a supervisor for handling large amounts of classified materials unrelated to his official duties.

US officials have said Pollard, over a series of months and for a salary, provided intelligence summaries and huge quantities of classified documents on the capabilities and programmes of Israel's enemies. He pleaded guilty in 1986 to conspiracy to commit espionage and was given a life sentence a year later.

Though he has said his guilty plea was coerced, he has also expressed regret, saying in a 1998 interview that he did not consider himself a hero.

"There is nothing good that came as a result of my actions," he said. "I tried to serve two countries at the same time. That does not work."

Under sentencing rules in place at the time of his crime, he became presumptively eligible for parole in November - 30 years after his arrest. The Justice Department agreed not to oppose parole at a July hearing that took into account his behaviour in prison and likelihood to commit future crimes.

The parole decision was applauded in Israel, which after initially claiming that he was part of a rogue operation, acknowledged him in the 1990s as an agent and granted him citizenship. Israelis have long campaigned for his freedom, and Mr Netanyahu said last summer that he had consistently raised the issue of his release with American officials.

Pollard's lawyers also have sought permission for him to travel immediately to Israel, and two Democratic members of Congress - Eliot Engel and Jerrold Nadler, both of New York - have called on the Justice Department to grant the request so Pollard can live with his family and "resume his life there". The congressmen say Pollard accepts that such a move may bar him from ever re-entering the United States.

The White House has said it has no intention of altering the conditions of Pollard's parole, and even friends and supporters say they do not know exactly what is next for him.

Hours later, Pollard checked in with probation officers at a federal courthouse in New York City, then emerged into a throng of journalists. He wore loose-fitting khaki trousers, a blue yarmulke and a slight smile.

"I can't comment on anything today," he said, with his wife Esther Pollard on his arm.

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