A Moscow court on Friday found U.S. missionary Andrew Okhotin guilty of trying to smuggle $48,000 through Sheremetyevo Airport and handed down a suspended sentence of six months, as requested by prosecutors.
The court also ordered that the money — which Okhotin said was from donations intended for Russia’s Baptist congregations — be turned over to state coffers.
Okhotin, 28, was detained with the cash after flying in from New York in March. He testified at the trial, which started two weeks ago, that he had inadvertently chosen the customs corridor intended for travelers with nothing to declare but had made no attempt to conceal the money.
Judge Igor Yakovlev ordered the confiscation of the $48,000 along with $10 in personal money that Okhotin had carried with him.
“The money is being taken away from believers. This is simple injustice!” Okhotin’s brother David cried out at the judge after the verdict was read.
Yakovlev said in his verdict that he had handed down a mild sentence due to scores of excellent character references that Okhotin had received from religious leaders and university professors in the United States, and to the fact that he was the main breadwinner for his small child.
In that, the judge confused Okhotin with his brother.
David Okhotin and his wife have a nine-month-old daughter, whom they brought to Friday’s hearing, but Andrew Okhotin is childless.
“This just shows their [lack of] attention to details,” Andrew Okhotin said. “If they wrote the verdict with so much diligence that they ascribed a child to me, no wonder they ascribed some other things to me as well.”
Okhotin and his lawyer, Vladimir Ryakhovsky, said they would appeal, up to the European Court of Human Rights, if necessary.
Okhotin’s Russian visa expires Sept. 1, but he said he hopes to get an extension and would stay in the country as long as it takes to get the verdict overturned.
“What else can I do?” Okhotin said. “If you got robbed and that illegality was covered up by law, what would you do?”
Okhotin has said airport customs officials tried to solicit a hefty bribe from him, and threatened him with imprisonment or worse if he refused to pay. No charges on the bribe allegation were filed.
Okhotin called the verdict “a gross miscarriage of justice” and said it presented “a very tragic picture of the realities of Russia.”
He insisted that the only reason he was charged was due to a mistake or wrongdoing on the part of customs officials, and accused the court of covering up the action.
“I saw [corruption] all the way along, but I hoped that the court would put an end to that,” Okhotin said. “Today I saw that the court endorses illegality.”
The law places no restriction on the amount of cash that can be brought into the country, as long as anything above $10,000 is declared. If Okhotin had chosen the right customs corridor — the “red” one for those with items to declare — officials would have simply stamped his declaration form and waved him through.
But the mere entering of the other, “green” customs corridor is regarded as tantamount to a statement that the traveler has nothing to declare, customs legal expert Alexei Ionov testified at the trial. If something subject to declaration is then found, the person may be charged with smuggling contraband.
Okhotin had a properly filled-out declaration form, which he said he presented at the officials’ request. But customs agents insisted that Okhotin had dodged their questions about how much cash he was carrying and failed to immediately present his declaration form.
“The court does not trust the testimony of the defendant, and believes that his statements were made with the goal of avoiding punishment for a crime and ensuring the return of the smuggled money,” Yakovlev said in his verdict.
A six-month suspended sentence is the lightest allowed by the law in contraband cases, and prosecutors asked the court to impose it last Wednesday. Okhotin’s lawyers interpreted the request as an acknowledgement that the prosecution did not have much of a case.
Okhotin’s mother, Lyudmila, sighed audibly and shook her head when the verdict was read out. “I had in no way expected such a decision,” she said.
Defense lawyers argued that bringing into the country something that is not banned or restricted by law does not constitute contraband, even if the traveler mistakenly enters the wrong customs corridor. They also insisted that the prosecution failed to prove Okhotin’s intent to commit a crime — an essential requirement for a conviction on contraband charges.
Okhotin, a student in Harvard’s Master of Theological Studies program, had a letter showing that the money was from donations collected in the United States by the Russian Evangelist Ministry. The group was founded by his father, Vladimir, who emigrated to the United States in 1989 after serving two years in a Soviet prison for his “anti-Soviet activities” — a common charge for religious believers who refused to work as informers for the secret police.
David Okhotin said after the verdict that no charges would have been filed if Okhotin had been bringing money for the Russian Orthodox Church.
“If he had carried drug money for the needs of the Orthodox Church, they wouldn’t have said a word,” he said.
The Russian Orthodox Church enjoys warm relations with the state and pushed the government into adopting in 1997 a law that enshrines the church as one of Russia’s four main religions and sharply curtails the rights of other confessions.