The possibility that Soviet Jewish Prisoner of Conscience Anatoly Shcharansky may be released in the next few days and allowed to leave the USSR touched off a flurry of speculation today over reports originating in Bonn that he would be included in a swap for West German intelligence agents now in East German prisons.
Shcharansky, 37, was arrested nine years ago for allegedly spying for the U.S. and has served eight years of a 13-year prison sentence.
Officials in the U.S., West Germany and Israel have been tight-lipped on the report today in the West German mass circulation daily Bild that the prisoner swap would take place in a few days. Bild cited “ranking Soviet sources ” for the information and said the exchange would take place “within the next several days, probably at the Glienicker Bridge in Berlin, ” which connects the east and west sectors of the divided city. It has been the site of past prisoner exchanges.
INFORMED BY HIGHEST WHITE HOUSE SOURCES
Israel Radio stated flatly today that Shcharansky would be released in three days as part of a prisoner exchange between the Soviet Union and the U.S. According to Israel Radio, Premier Shimon Peres and Deputy Premier and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir were secretly informed of the exchange by the “highest sources” at the White House.
Neither U.S., German nor Israeli officials have commented. American Jewish organizations active on behalf of emigration rights for Soviet Jews have expressed cautious optimism but offered no substantive information to corroborate the reports.
According to the report in Bild — which Israeli sources claimed was leaked to the paper by Soviet journalist Viktor Lewis — the exchange was arranged by American, Soviet and West German officials after “months of negotiations.” An unspecified number of captured Soviet bloc agents imprisoned in West Germany and the U.S. would be released to Soviet and East German authorities, Bild said. Bonn government spokesman Juergen Findeisen was quoted as saying, “We do not take a position on such reports.”
CONTACTS FOR THE SWAP
According to American wire service reports to day, contacts for the Shcharansky swap evolved at a meeting between an American rabbi, Ronny Greenwald of Rockland County, N.Y., and an East German lawyer, Wolfgang Vogel, who has been a go-between in past prisoner exchanges.
Greenwald refused to comment on the reports said to have emanated from officials close to the deal and also from unspecified Jewish sources. Greenwald has visited East Germany 25 times in the last six years.
Two Congressmen long active on behalf of Soviet Jewry, and especially the Shcharansky case, Reps. Benjamin Gilman (R. N.Y.) and Tom Lantos (D. Calif.) visited East Berlin several weeks ago to seek a meeting with East German leader Erich Honeker. According to the wire service report, Gilman met with Vogel, who made it clear to him that Shcharansky was “available.”
A spokesman for Lantos in Washington told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency today that he and Gilman were in East Germany recently as members of a Congressional delegation to the European Parliament, which meets in Strasbourg, France. Lantos was chairman and Gilman was vice chairman of the group. The delegation met with Honeker, and Lantos and Gilman also met with other East German officials. But the spokesman had no comment about a meeting of either of the Congressmen with Vogel.
The wire service report also mentioned Rozanne Ridgeway, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs, and the U.S. Ambassador to Bonn, Richard Burt, as being involved in the deal. It quoted “sources close to the deal” and unnamed sources in the New York Jewish community as saying “it could be any day now” with respect to the prisoner exchange.
STATE DEPARTMENT DECLINES TO COMMENT
The State Department refused comment. Secretary of State George Shultz, appearing on ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America ” today declined to comment on reports of a prisoner exchange but spoke in general of freedom of religion, emigration and civil rights in the USSR.
“These are things of tremendous importance to us all and if the Soviet Union decided to move forward in some of these areas, I’m sure it will be a positive development, ” Shultz said.
President Reagan is said to have asked Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, during a private session at their Geneva summit meeting last November, specifically to include Shcharansky in any prisoner exchange.
Israel Radio said today that Shcharansky’s wife, Avital, who lives in Israel and has been campaigning worldwide for her husband’s release during the past eight years, was informed that he will soon be freed and is preparing to go to Berlin to meet him at the selected crossing point where the exchange would take place.
Israeli Kremlinologists were quoted in Tel Aviv today as saying the Soviets might find it easier to release Shcharansky in a spy exchange than allow him to leave under worldwide pressure, as a Zionist refusenik. The Soviets insist Shcharansky was a spy for the U.S., a charge dismissed as utter nonsense by President Jimmy Carter when he was arrested.
NO CONFIRMATION OF THE EXCHANGE
William Keyserling, Washington representative of the National Conference for Soviet Jewry, said today there was no confirmation of the prisoner exchange story but “we certainly do hope that he (Shcharansky) will be allowed out.” Keyserling stressed, however, that it should be remembered that 20 other POCs would still be in Soviet prisons and 26 former POCs in the Soviet Union denied permission to leave, as well as hundreds of thousands of Jews who wish to emigrate. Asked if he thought the prisoner exchange was just another rumor, he replied, “I’m hoping that it’s more than that.”
Morey Shapira, president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry (UCSJ), said, “We are of course heartened by this important development and are taking a cautiously optimistic attitude. The UCSJ has been deeply involved in all the efforts for his (Shcharansky’s) release since his arrest nine years ago and views this as an extremely important step. We hope that the reports surrounding his release are true and will be a harbinger for the release of other POCs.”
The UCSJ in Washington released a report from its Long Island committee to the effect that Shcharansky’s mother, Ida Milgrom, who lives in Moscow, has received a 16-page letter from her son saying he was still in the prison compound at the Chistopol labor camp but his health was “more normal”, and the “situation in the prison is better.”