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The Road to Freedom

February 12, 1986
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Anatoly Shcharansky stepped into the world of freedom Tuesday. The 38-year-old Soviet Jewish dissident and aliya activist who became a symbol of the worldwide struggle for human rights during his eight-year ordeal in Soviet prisons and forced labor camps, arrived in Israel Tuesday night to a hero’s welcome. (Arrival story, P. 4.)

Shcharansky was released by the Soviets Tuesday morning as part of an East-West spy swap and was flown immediately from West Berlin to Frankfurt. There he was re-united with his wife Avital, who flew from Israel to meet him. It was in Frankfurt, too, that he received his Israeli passport, presented to him personally by Israel’s Ambassador to West Germany, Yitzhak Ben Ari. Anatoly had first applied for an emigration visa in 1974.

(In Israel, President Chaim Herzog and Deputy Premier and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir issued special statements welcoming Shcharansky. See P. 3 for texts of their statements.)

The prisoner exchange took place at the middle of the Glienicke Bridge which connects West Berlin with Potsdam in East Germany. Shcharansky was one of nine persons involved. Five were suspected or convicted Eastern bloc agents imprisoned in the U.S. or West Germany. Three were Western agents imprisoned for espionage in Communist bloc countries.

Shcharansky was arrested in 1978 allegedly for spying for the U.S. But the charges against him were regarded as patently false in the West. The 13-year sentence imposed, of which he served eight years, was seen as punishment for his activism on behalf of Jewish and other dissidents and his indefatigable struggle for the right of himself and other Russian Jews to emigrate.

SEPARATED FROM OTHER EXCHANGED PRISONERS

At the insistence of the U.S., Shcharansky was driven across the bridge alone, to underline the fact that he was not a spy. The other exchanged prisoners followed in a minibus.

A German government official confirmed this. Shcharansky, he said, was not a spy but a human rights activist. It was the Soviets who insisted that he could be given his freedom only within the framework of a spy exchange. West German sources denied categorically that the Soviets received any payment for releasing Shcharansky.

A line of parked buses blocked the view of what was happening at the eastern end of the bridge. The exchange ceremonies in the center were brief. Shcharansky, slight of build, wearing a grey coat and a brown “chapka,” the traditional Russian fur cap, smiled and waved at the small crowd of reporters and spectators waiting at the western side. He was only glimpsed by them.

He was surrounded by dozens of officials, greeted personally by U.S. Ambassador to West Germany Richard Burt, and whisked away to Tempelhof Airport in the back seat of a grey Mercedes limousine flying the Stars and Stripes on its fenders.

Reporters and onlookers said Shcharansky seemed to be in good health and visibly enjoying his new freedom. He walked swiftly and confidently to the waiting limousine, barely glancing at the battery of TV cameras aimed at him from behind police barricades.

At Frankfurt Airport he was allowed a half hour of privacy with Avital in the VIP lounge before the couple was surrounded by officials and jubilant well-wishers. They had not seen each other for 12 years, during which Avital campaigned tirelessly and unremittingly all over the world, but especially in the U.S., for release of her husband.

Shcharansky’s spirit was never broken during his harsh ordeal in the Soviet Gulag. But for long periods it appeared he would not survive. He reportedly developed a heart condition. When Avital flew to Frankfurt from Israel she was accompanied by a cardiologist.

NO MEDICAL PROBLEMS FOUND

But the doctor who examined Shcharansky at Frankfurt Airport said he found no medical problems and pronounced him fit to fly to Israel without delay. Shcharansky thanked his American, German and Israeli hosts before boarding the plane. He told well-wishers that he had been given good food during the final weeks of his incarceration and apparently regained most of the weight he had lost.

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