#7 - JRL 7214
June 8, 2003
A Harvard student seeks Russian justice
Smuggling charges provoke outcry from legislators
By David Filipov and Catherine Dunn, Globe Staff and Globe Correspondent
MOSCOW -- One morning in March, Andrew Okhotin, a Harvard Divinity School student carrying $48,000 in donations he says were intended for Russian churches, chose the wrong line at Moscow's international airport. It was an innocent mistake, says Okhotin, 28, but one that changed his life profoundly.
Now he is accused of a crime he says he did not commit. He says Russian officials tried to extort money from him, threatened him with imprisonment or worse to try to extract a confession, and fabricated testimony against him after he refused to pay them off. Since May 21, Okhotin has been on a hunger strike to protest the charges against him.
Russian authorities say this is a case of attempted contraband, which carries a maximum five-year prison sentence.
Okhotin has become the subject of prayer vigils in the United States and has sparked a firestorm of criticism over the state of due process in Russia led by senior members of Congress, who have written to President Vladimir V. Putin.
Looking gaunt, Okhotin, a student in Harvard's Master of Theological Studies program who had taken a semester off, sipped on bottled water outside a central Moscow coffeehouse last week and tried to explain how he ended up in his situation.
''It has taken on a life of its own,'' he said, smiling wanly.
Okhotin says he had come to Russia to deliver donations collected in the United States by the Russian Evangelist Ministry, a San Diego-based nonprofit group founded by his father, Vladimir, a former Soviet religious dissident who brought his family to the United States in 1989. Andrew Okhotin says the funds were intended for Evangelical Christian Baptists here -- a group that was repressed under Soviet rule but that has been generally tolerated in post-communist Russia.
Okhotin arrived at the Sheremetyevo-2 airport on the morning of March 29 on an overnight flight from New York. After entering passport control, he says he filled out a customs form declaring the money. But at customs, he took the ''green'' corridor, intended for passengers with nothing to declare. A customs official asked Okhotin whether he was carrying foreign currency and whether he had filled out a declaration.
Okhotin said he answered ''yes'' to both questions. But instead of directing him to the proper ''red'' corridor, Okhotin said, the customs officers detained him and he was interrogated for 12 hours. He said officials declined his request to notify the US Embassy.
Okhotin said one official, Major Irina Kondratskaya, told him he could go free if he paid $10,000. When he refused, she told him customs would confiscate the $48,000 and launch a criminal case against him for attempted smuggling. ''She said: `You are going to jail. We have bad jails; bad things will happen to you there,' '' Okhotin said. Then she offered to let him go for $5,000.
When Okhotin again refused to pay, officials released him into the custody of his brother, David, who lives in Moscow, on the condition that he not leave the city. They also gave him the phone number of a lawyer; Okhotin says that when he met with the man the next day, he told him to pay $15,000 if he wanted to see his money again.
Kondratskaya's report, a copy of which was made available to the Globe, says that once Okhotin entered the green corridor, he was guilty of smuggling under Russia's Criminal Code. The report also says Okhotin initially declared only $10, and voluntarily produced the full sum only after officers began a strip search and an inspection of his belongings.
The lawyer Okhotin decided to retain, Anatoli Pchelentsev, said the criminal investigator for the case, Olga Pugacheva, reported she did not see grounds for a criminal trial. But Pchelentsev said Pugacheva added she was under pressure from her superiors to obtain a conviction. Kondratskaya and Pugacheva declined interview requests.
The customs agent who detained him initially wrote in his report that Okhotin had voluntarily showed the declaration. But later the agent changed his statement to say Okhotin had tried to smuggle in the money.
Pchelentsev said he has been contacted by the Federal Security Service, the domestic successor of KGB, the Soviet secret police, who in 1984 imprisoned Okhotin's father for ''anti-Soviet activities.''
''There is concern that this case may represent further evidence of religious bias on some level inside the Russian government,'' said Sam Stratman, a spokesman for US Representative Henry J. Hyde, Republican of Illinois, who is chairman of the House International Relations Committee. Hyde and five other congressmen wrote a letter to Putin demanding justice for Okhotin and suggesting that Russian authorities ''may be manufacturing accusations against Mr. Okhotin in order to extort the charitable donations.''
One of the authors of the letter, Representative Joseph R. Pitts, Republican of Pennsylvania, said the case showed ''the massive corruption in Russia.''
Prokofi Tvaltvadze, head of investigations in Sheremetyevo-2 airport, said he is convinced of Okhotin's guilt. ''If we detained someone on smuggling charges, that means he was trying to smuggle in contraband,'' he said. Even if investigators drop the criminal charges against Okhotin, Pchelentsev said, customs still could still fine him $19,000, a sum Okhotin said he would refuse to pay. ''I'm not going to stop the hunger strike until they dismiss the case,'' he said.
He lost 22 pounds in the first four days after he stopped eating food. He said he gets tired easily, has difficulty concentrating, and spends much of his time in bed.
''We've been praying all this time,'' said his sister, Helena, 24, who lives in San Diego with their parents.
Filipov reported from Moscow; and Dunn reported from Boston. Irina Balakhonova, a researcher at the Globe's Moscow bureau, contributed.