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Posted: 9/5/03

Russian court convicts
Baptist worker of smuggling

By Frank Brown

Religion News Service

MOSCOW–In a case being watched closely by evangelical Protestants worldwide, a judge convicted an American Baptist youth pastor of currency smuggling Aug. 22, in the process confiscating $48,000 in charitable donations collected from believers in the United States.

The part-time pastor, Andrew Okhotin, was given a suspended sentence of six months and is free to leave Russia, where he has been stuck since March. But Okhotin vows to appeal the verdict and remain in Moscow, perhaps missing the start of the fall term at Harvard Divinity School, where he is a third-year graduate student.

Andrew Okhotin speaks with reporters outside the Russian court where he was convicted of currency smuggling for carrying $48,000 in contributions to Baptist churches in the country. (RNS Photo)

“I don't know how long I'll have to stay,” he said after hearing the verdict, calling the seizure of the $48,000 a “theft.”

“If they stole from you, what would you do?” he asked.

Minutes earlier, Okhotin wore a crooked smile of disbelief as Judge Igor Yakovlev pronounced him guilty and declared the $48,000 in 50- and 100-dollar bills to be “contraband used in the commission of a crime” and now the property of the Russian government.

The judge acknowledged Okhotin's “exceptionally positive character references” witnessed by the dozens of faxed and mailed appeals from hundreds of evangelical Christians, Okhotin's professors and a letter from eight U.S. members of Congress. But, in arriving at the verdict, Yakovlev ignored Okhotin's version of what happened on the morning of March 29 when Okhotin arrived on a flight with the cash in his backpack.

In sometimes conflicting accounts, two customs inspectors testified that Okhotin's choice of the green, nothing-to-declare corridor was a willful attempt at deception.

Okhotin told the court he chose the green corridor by accident, cooperated with the inspectors and immediately produced a customs declaration for the cash that he had filled out on the flight from New York. The customs inspectors ignored it, Okhotin said, choosing instead to demand bribes of first $10,000 and then $5,000 for his release.

“We raised the question of bribery here. Did the judge take an interest? No. Did the prosecutor take an interest? No,” Okhotin said, calling the court proceeding a “cover up” for the wrongdoing of the customs officers.

Neither the prosecutor nor customs officials were on hand for the verdict. The prosecutor, Alla Tomas, previously refused to comment on any aspect of the case. Irina Kondratskaya, a customs inspector accused by Okhotin of soliciting a bribe during his 12-hour interrogation at the airport, angrily declined in a brief telephone conversation to speak about what happened.

Aside from Okhotin's case, which has received scant attention from the Russian media, law enforcement corruption is a hot topic this summer in Moscow. In July, at the same airport used by Okhotin, three border guards were arrested and accused of taking bribes to allow wanted criminals to leave Russia on fake passports. On Aug 21, six Moscow police officers were charged with taking part in an extortion and contract murder racket.

Worldwide, Okhotin's case has taken on a life of its own by slowly, organically provoking the prayerful indignation of evangelical Christians. Supporters are following his journey through the Russian legal system, his 27-day hunger strike and the prayer appeals on the K-Love Christian radio network, through e-mail and on Christian-oriented websites from Denmark to North America to Russia.

About 50 young Baptists at the church where Okhotin volunteered weekends as a youth pastor stayed up until 2:30 a.m. the day of the verdict praying for “God to defend Andrew and help those Russian families who were waiting for the help he was bringing,” said the church's pastor, Alexander Brover, in a telephone interview from Westfield, Mass.

Members of Southwick Baptist Church contributed to the $48,000 sum raised to aid needy Russian Baptists, Brover said, adding that he thinks a divine plan is at work in Okhotin's predicament.

“God took Andrew on this path to prepare him for something bigger. God is teaching him something,” the pastor said.

Indeed, of all the people who could have run afoul of customs officials, Okhotin is uniquely qualified to hold his own. Okhotin's father was a Soviet-era pastor in an underground Baptist church who was arrested for his faith and imprisoned for 2 1/2 years. The family–Okhotin's parents and his eight siblings–immigrated to the United States in 1989. After graduating from Harvard Divinity School, Okhotin wants to enroll in Harvard Law School and eventually specialize in defending the rights of religious minorities.

Okhotin's mother, Nadezhda Okhotin, who flew to Moscow from her home in San Diego for the legal proceedings, said the last time she had been in a Russian courtroom was in 1984 for her husband's trial on charges of anti-Soviet agitation.

“This is the persecution of a Christian doing good works,” she said after hearing the verdict. “I can't see it any other way.”

Okhotin's lawyer, Vladimir Ryakhovsky, said he would appeal the verdict to the Moscow City Court. He called the grounds for appeal strong because “the judge didn't take into account at all the fact that there is no limit how much money you can bring into the country.”

Ryakhovsky, whose own father was a Pentecostal preacher imprisoned for his faith by the Soviets, predicted Okhotin's case might reach Russia's Supreme Court before getting resolved. Ryakhovsky, one of the country's top religious freedom lawyers, won a victory earlier this year before the high court when it decided to allow Muslim women to wear headscarves in their passport photos.

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