Divinity School Student Prosecuted in Moscow Court

Courtesy OF Andrew okhotin


MOSCOW—More than four months after police seized him in a Moscow airport with $48,000 in American cash in his bags, Harvard Divinity School (HDS) student Andrew Okhotin saw his day in court Wednesday, but the four-hour hearing ended without any verdict on the smuggling charge levelled against him.

Okhotin, a naturalized American citizen, has maintained since his March 29 detention that the money he carried was intended for destitute Protestant churches in his birthplace, the former Soviet Union, and that his failure to declare the funds properly was a simple slip-up.

But authorities allege that Okhotin intentionally misrepresented the money for unspecified sinister purposes, and have sought to confine him to a Russian prison for up to five years as punishment.

Judge Igor Yakovlev adjourned court on Wednesday after hearing testimony and cross-examinations from both sides’ witnesses at Golovi Courthouse. The prosecutors and defense attorneys, as well as Okhotin himself, will deliver their closing arguments on August 20, at which point the judge said he will deliver a verdict.

Until then, Yakovlev will mull over the complex rival stories which competed for his attention Wednesday and commanded the eyes and ears of a room packed with journalists, representatives of the United States embassy, human rights observers and friends and family of the defendant.


“I think that it went better than we had expected, and the reason for that is probably all the attention it’s been getting,” Okhotin said when the day’s proceedings were over.

Witnesses for the Prosecution

After his arrest, Okhotin has said, he encountered a pervasive pattern of corruption and misconduct by the Russian authorities—both the customs agents who first took him into custody and the investigators examining his case—including repeated solicitations for bribes.

But those allegations did not resurface in the hearing this week. Instead, Okhotin and his two lawyers limited their arguments to the events of March 29, avoiding conspiracy theories and striving to pin down an accurate timeline of that day. When disputes erupted between the prosecution and the defense, they concerned factual discrepancies.

Stephan P. Sonnenberg, a Harvard Human Rights Project fellow and Harvard Law School student who has been a close adviser to Okhotin in recent months, said this was a matter of strategy.

While the defense could have raised questions about the fundamental validity of Okhotin’s investigation, Sonnenberg said, doing so would only have led to lengthy re-examination of the charges and a further delay in a trial for which Okhotin has already waited several months.

Both sides agreed on Wednesday that Okhotin carried with him a customs form which correctly declared the money in his luggage, and that he entered Sheremetyevo II Airport’s green corridor—designated for those with nothing to declare—rather than the proper red one.

For the first part of Wednesday’s hearing, the prosecutor marshaled three witnesses in an attempt to portray Okhotin as having been uncooperative, evasive and generally suspicious after this transgression that Okhotin insisted was a mere oversight.

In testimony which Sonnenberg called “really, really polished,” the witnesses—two customs agents who first stopped Okhotin and a baggage handler whom they brought in at the time to observe—said he had refused to answer their questions in a straightforward manner or to hand over his declaration form until they had interrogated him for an extended period of time.