Moscow Court Convicts Student

MOSCOW—The Harvard Divinity School (HDS) student accused of trying to smuggle $48,000 through Moscow’s airport five months ago is free to leave the country—but his money is not.

A Moscow District Court judge found Andrew J. Okhotin guilty of smuggling on Aug. 21, but sentenced him to only six months of conditional punishment, or “uslovno.”

The verdict means that Okhotin can return to the U.S., but on the condition that if he commits another crime in Russia within the next six months, he would have to serve the time for that crime plus six months for the smuggling conviction. The charge against Okhotin carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, but prosecutors had requested the lesser punishment.

The judge said the Russian government will keep the money—which according to Okhotin was donated by Baptists from his father’s San Diego ministry and meant for destitute Christians in Russia—because it was illegally brought across the border.

“The government has to control all the money that’s brought into the country,” Judge Igor Yakovlev said in his verdict. “Because Okhotin was trying to hide the money, his actions were against the economic interests of the Russian Federation.”

Okhotin remains in Moscow, awaiting a ruling on his appeal, which is expected in the next week. The court had warned Okhotin that the appeal might take several months to address, but a few days ago Okhotin was notified that Yakovlev had been recalled from his month-long vacation to review the appeal by Sept. 15.

Okhotin testified at his trial that he had committed an innocent mistake when, on exiting the Sheremetyevo II airport on March 29, he walked out through a green corridor for passengers

with nothing to declare instead of the red corridor for passengers carrying over $10,000.

He said he was confused by the system of passageways and would have willingly declared the money if he had understood.

In his verdict, Yakovlev said he was incredulous that Okhotin, who said he had flown into Moscow many times before, had not purposefully avoided the red corridor.

“He was walking with his head down like he was in a hurry to cross the border...He was evasively answering questions with questions,” Yakovlev said of Okhotin’s behavior at the airport. “The court doesn’t trust the testimony of the defendant.”

Okhotin, family members and supporters in the U.S. expressed outrage at the guilty verdict after the hearing, questioning the fairness of the legal process and the impartiality of the judge.

“It looks like the legal system is covering up for the customs,” Okhotin said, referring to his allegation that customs officers tried to bribe him at the airport. “The only problem with that is what about the question of getting a just outcome?”

Okhotin called the verdict, which Yakovlev delivered in a brisk monotone five hours after the appointed 10 a.m. court time, “hastily put together” and “very selective.”

He pointed out that Yakovlev did not mention the bribery allegation or factual inconsistencies in the statements of the customs officials.

Back home, friends and colleagues expressed happiness that Okhotin would finally be free to return to the United States after an enforced five-month extension of what he intended as a few days of travel. But many were at the same time outraged at what they said was a miscarriage of justice.