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.

“Certainly I’m relieved that there’s no jail sentence, because for a while things looked really dire,” said HDS spokesperson Wendy S. McDowell. “It seems like it’s not the worst possible outcome but it’s probably not the best.”

Dunphy Professor of the Practice in Religion David Little, who worked closely with Okhotin at Harvard, was even more downcast when he heard the verdict.

“That’s extremely bad news, very troubling,” he said. “We had all hoped he would be exonerated and he’s not, so it’s a very sad outcome I think.”

Others lamented the loss of the $48,000.

Susan Clark, a family friend who has been active in organizing prayer vigils and other support activities for Okhotin among the Baptist community, said she was dismayed that the money would not yet reach its intended charitable purpose.

“It doesn’t belong to Russia, the Russian system or whoever’s pocket it ended up in,” Clark said. “It belongs to God.”

Homeward Bound?

Okhotin said he felt it was his moral duty to appeal the guilty verdict, even though it meant possibly delaying his return to Harvard for another semester.

“I know who’s going to be splitting [the $48,000]—the people at customs,” Okhotin said. “Just the thought of that makes me want to stay.”

Okhotin’s lawyer, Vladimir Ryakhovsky said after the trial that he would seek to overturn the verdict based on the contention that Okhotin did not intentionally hide the money from customs and also that the money did not belong to Okhotin—so he should not be held accountable for it.

For the devout Baptist, the verdict was a dissatisfying conclusion—or disappointing twist—to a five-month ordeal that has been marked by prayer with his family, a month-long hunger strike and the study of several languages.

The day the verdict was announced brought more anxiety for the Okhotin family, as the judge did not walk into the courtroom until 3 p.m.—despite his pronouncement at the conclusion of the trial that the verdict would be given at 10 a.m.

Okhotin spent the day tensely pacing back and forth—sometimes holding the hand of his 10 month-old niece, Daniela—along the fifth floor hall of the Golovi Courthouse.

By the time Yakovlev abruptly entered the sparse courtroom, Okhotin’s crowd of supporters had dwindled down to family, a close friend and several journalists. The once-giggly Daniela was soundly sleeping on Okhotin’s brother’s shoulder.

Once inside the courtroom, Yakovlev read his typed verdict without pausing to greet the court or look at the defendant.

The prosecutor was absent from court.

After declaring Okhotin guilty, he restated the parts of the customs agents’ testimonies that he deemed relevant. He cited Okhotin’s child as a reason for his doling out a conditional punishment instead of jail time.

Okhotin does not have a child, nor was one mentioned in the trial.

“That’s funny, actually,” David Okhotin, the defendant’s brother said. “It shows how attentive they are to details—how talented they are at creating their own stories.”

Andrew Okhotin also said he saw a man wearing a customs uniform go into Yakovlev’s chambers a few hours before the judge appeared to state his verdict.

Okhotin and his brother both expressed shock and disgust with the Russian justice system after the hearing.

“It’s in a pathetic state,” Okhotin said. “They try to be objective during the trials because of the monitoring. But how is the verdict reached?”

“One branch of the system covers for the other branch instead of fixing its mistakes,” David Okhotin said. “The saga goes on.”

Okhotin’s brother said once again that he believes Andrew’s Baptist faith in a country dominated by the Russian Orthodox Church motivated the judge to issue a guilty verdict.

“I think everything happened because the money was going to the believers,” David Okhotin said.

On the metro ride home from the courthouse, Okhotin mused about whether the construction on the Center for Government and International Studies, a block from his Cambridge apartment, would be completed before he got a chance to return to Harvard—should he choose to fight for his conviction to be overturned.

“If you know you’re innocent, leaving to me is like giving up,” Okhotin said.

—Staff writer Anne K. Kofol can be reached at kofol@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at vozick@fas.harvard.edu.