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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.
Okhotin’s lawyers, Vladimir Ryakhovski and Anatoli Pchelintsev, sharply cross-examined the men in an effort to expose inconsistencies in their rendition of the day’s events.
“As soon as the defense started asking questions they started stumbling, especially the porter,” Sonnenberg said. “It was prompting—he had made a mistake and he had to correct himself.”
At one point during the prosecutor’s questioning, the porter contradicted the agents’ testimony as to the specific room in which Okhotin had revealed the money and the forms stating its purpose. After a careful round of queries from Judge Yakovlev, the porter changed his answer to line up with that of his superiors.
Sonnenberg said he suspected that the absence on Wednesday of another porter whom the prosecution had announced as a witness was a deliberate move to avoid further contradictions or miscues.
Standing Up for Himself
In defense cross-examination and Okhotin’s own testimony, which comprised the hearing’s second half, the lawyers and the divinity student reiterated his case that four months of trouble had resulted from one single error—which, they said, would have been instantly avoided had Okhotin properly understood Sheremetyevo II’s corridor system.
Yakovlev, stone-faced for the first half of the proceedings, at first appeared disinclined to follow this line of argument. During the defense attorneys’ cross-examination, he swiftly cut off several questions which Okhotin said he thought were “key” to his case.
Despite the fact that the judge had gone so far as to laugh at one of the customs agents earlier in the trial, Okhotin said he was shaken by his brusque attitude to the defense lawyers.
“This made me think this was not going to be fair,” Okhotin said afterwards, adding that the judge seemed to display “overt hostility” towards his cause early in the trial.
Okhotin said he was particularly disturbed by the judge’s decision to disallow any audio recordings or cameras, and his stern attitude while requesting Okhotin’s name and address more than once.
“Obviously there’s a subterranean intensity to all of this,” Okhotin said. “But on the surface you try to remain calm.”
But once he took the stand, he said he saw a different side of Yakovlev.
“I think the case that we were making and the evidence there was compelling enough that if the judge continued the way he began the trial it would be obvious to everyone that he was biased,” Okhotin said afterward. “There was a change.”
After Okhotin gave his statement, laying out his version of March 29’s events, the prosecutors repeatedly and vigorously asked how a man fairly familiar with travel to Russia could have made the mistake Okhotin claims.
Sonnenberg said that as unsympathetic as he seemed towards the defense attorneys’ questions, he was no kinder to the prosecutor’s cross-examination.
“My personal opinion of the judge is that he’s tough but he’s probably fair,” he said. “He’s not a sweetie-pie, but he’s tough to both sides.”
Okhotin said he found the prosecutors’ line of questioning unresponsive to his testimony.
“I thought that the other side had to falsify events in order to prove their case,” he said. “That tells me they were not right in what they did. Morally, I felt some vindication that I can tell my story.”
Bracing for the Unknown
In the two months after his trial date was announced on June 16, Okhotin said he made what preparations he could for Wednesday’s trial.
Extensive meetings with his two Russian attorneys in those weeks did not produce elaborate defense strategies. Instead, Okhotin said, they revolved around “trying to remember all the details accurately” regarding that day in March.
Okhotin said his lawyers had found it “encouraging” that all his statements about the confiscated money, from his first remarks under interrogation to his most recent claims, had remained consistent.
Present at one of the pretrial meetings was Smith Professor of Law Henry J. Steiner, who knew Okhotin from his time studying at Harvard this year.
A tourist trip to Russia with his wife turned into a stint as legal consultant to Okhotin, Steiner said. Pivotal to this new role was an hour-long meeting in which he said he helped Okhotin and his lawyers diagnose weaknesses in the prosecution’s case.
And in a new twist to the letter-writing campaign which Okhotin and Sonnenberg had initiated earlier this summer—including letters from congressional representatives and Harvard administrators, directed at officials in the U.S. and Russian governments—the lawyers suggested that Steiner write a letter to the chief judge in Okhotin’s case, vouching for the character of the defendant who studied human rights law under him at Harvard.
Steiner said the letter, translated into Russian, attested to Okhotin’s “quality of mind” and “quality of person.”
Sonnenberg said Dunphy Professor of the Practice in Religion David Little, with whom Okhotin studied closely at HDS, had written a similar letter.
As a result of these letters and others—some of which Okhotin said came from Harvard Law School students—Steiner said before the trial that Okhotin had “some very sturdy testimony behind him.”
“Much of the case turns on credibility, whom they believe,” he said—and he added that letters of recommendation could go a long way in winning that credibility in the judges’ eyes.
Back in Cambridge, HDS spokesperson Wendy McDowell said HDS Dean William A. Graham and HDS Assistant Dean for Student Life Belva B. Jordan were still waiting for any official Russian response to the letters of appeal that they sent in July.
In the meantime, McDowell said she had been working with Little on editing and drafting an opinion piece for publication to bring Okhotin’s plight to a wider audience. Sonnenberg said he collaborated with Little in the writing of that piece.
Okhotin said that despite such continued efforts to fight the charges, by mid-August his had become a game of endurance.
“It’s sort of endless waiting,” he said Tuesday night. “It’s very draining.”
After the trial, he recalled the humdrum means he had used to cope with an approaching court date: Okhotin, who once undertook a 27-day hunger strike in defiance of his detention without formal charges, said he spent much of July buried in books, including a Victor Hugo novel and texts on the study of German, Hebrew and Latin.
“I went through one of the Berlitz dictionaries from cover to cover,” he said. “It’s just a waiting game. You have to keep your mind preoccupied.”
On the eve of his trial, Okhotin said this anxious sense of marking time until his trial date came from a deep uncertainty about what awaited him on Wednesday morning.
As late as Tuesday night, Okhotin said he suspected that prosecutors “probably haven’t made up their mind yet” about how to handle the case.
Perhaps the most desirable possibility he mentioned was that all charges would be dropped and no trial in fact take place on Wednesday or any later date—and he had thought this was an entirely possible result which could have come at any time between June and August.
“We’ve been told that the judge or prosecutor’s office can put an end to this the day before the trial,” he said. “I think there’s plenty of grounds to drop the case.”
But that did not come to pass when he arrived at Golovi Courthouse on Wednesday morning.
In any case, the thought of dismissed charges had brought him little comfort this summer, Okhotin said.
“All these days that you’re waiting, you wonder—can this be the day?” he said.
Alternately, Okhotin worried on the night before his trial that even Aug. 13 would not bring an end to his lengthy battle. He said that though his trial “might be over by lunch” if all went according to plan, the judge could just as easily put it on indefinite hold in the absence of any scheduled witnesses.
He said then that he feared some witnesses might fail to show up the next morning as part of an intentional prosecutorial plan to delay his day in court “for weeks or months,” virtually ad infinitum.
To stave off such a stunt, Okhotin said the judge in his case had sent the slated witnesses “a real appeal to these people to come to the courtroom so that the trial could take place.”
Yesterday, he said that the second porter’s failure to show up and testify did not seem to have been part of any such large-scale delaying tactic—nor did the judge’s one-week recess worry him.
“At least on that side, my fears have been allayed,” he said.
Okhotin said Tuesday evening that this was a particular concern for him because any postponement risked cutting into the beginning of the semester at HDS, where he still eagerly anticipates finishing his masters in Theological Studies.
If acquitted, he said Cambridge would be his immediate destination.
“I would get on the first available flight and come home back to the States,” he said the night before his trial began. “I still have two term papers that I need to finish some time.”
Still, Okhotin said it was not a simple question of prosecute or release, guilty or innocent. He and others speculated before the trial that the prosecutors and judge might insist on going through with the full courtroom process even if they did not intend to follow through on the smuggling charges against Okhotin, as a way of exposing the corruption many say is rampant in the Russian customs system.
“They’re sick and tired of customs,” he said. “There are some people in the city of Moscow’s government who are just happy...that there’s an honest person who’s going to stand up.”
Okhotin said Tuesday that in the case of such a show trial, he would not cooperate with what he termed “a game taking place outside of whatever I do,” despite his adamant opposition to the alleged misconduct of Russian customs officials.
“All I want is for the funds to be distributed, charges to be dropped and permission to go back to the States,” he said then. “If they want to make anything bigger of this, I’m not interested in that.”
Another possibility mentioned by Okhotin and Sonnenberg, which they said could still happen after Wednesday’s events, was that the judge would declare Okhotin “conditionally guilty”—freeing him for the time being, but holding the promise of jail if he committed any acts of smuggling in the future. Such a verdict would leave Okhotin still technically guilty of a crime he adamantly says he did not commit.
If the judge hands down such a verdict next week, Okhotin said he would in all likelihood return to the United States and fight an appeal from there, no matter how many years it takes—and it might be many.
“If they choose to go this route my position is I will defend the facts of what happened on that date,” he said Thursday. “I will work as long as I can until I exhaust all the legal remedies.”
Sonnenberg said some uncertainty and lack of immediate resolution was inevitable, and that in its face a verdict of conditional guilt would be best fought far from Russian shores.
“You get all psyched up for a case and then he was sort of hoping to have it all done with today,” he said of Okhotin. “In reality it’s going to be a long, drawn-out process. If there’s this in-between fudging decision...you have to sort of get off the principled position and just rationally go to the States, finish school, get on with your life.”
Keeping the Faith
In the midst of such a dizzying array of possible outcomes, Okhotin said the night before his court date that he took some solace in what appeared to have been an end to the most outright alleged improprieties in his case—the repeated bribe solicitations which he said filled the first weeks of his case.
“I think in part because of publicity they must have implemented some sort of internal controls, which is really good,” he said.
And despite the possible scenarios which filled his head, Okhotin said he had more than his own immediate fate on his mind on Tuesday night. He stressed that no matter the outcome of the trial, he would still not be satisfied until the money he brought overseas this spring finally reached its intended recipients—the destitute evangelical Protestant congregations which dot the Russian landscape.
“There’s also still the unanswered question which no one here wants to talk about, and that deals with the religious part of the case,” he said. “Will the funds ever get to the evangelicals? People here just don’t want the money to get ever to the Protestants.”
Okhotin’s devout Baptist faith has been a defining force in his protracted legal battle. He has said that his father, Vladimir Okhotin, was detained by Soviet authorities for several years in the 1980s for no crime but his activist Protestantism—and Andrew Okhotin and his supporters have said they have no choice but to wonder if lingering contempt for Protestants on the part of the Orthodox authorities is behind his ordeal this year.
“The question is what is pushing them to through the book at him,” Sonnenberg said. “Maybe Andrew stepped on very corrupt toes. Maybe people are just covering their own tails.”
Okhotin said that he thought his trial might have been scheduled in advance for Wednesday because Aug. 13 marked the forty-second anniversary of the start of an underground church movement.
Among many other sources, perhaps the greatest pillar of support for Okhotin since March has been the Baptist community, which has organized numerous prayer vigils and letter-writing campaigns on his behalf.
Susan Clark, who has been active in such activities, said that she contacted “a leader of the large Mennonite community in Paraguay” to pray for Okhotin as soon as she heard of his trial’s start this week.
“They are descendants of the ones who emigrated out of Russia in the 1930s because of intense persecution...and I thought they could relate to what Andrew is going through right now,” she wrote in an e-mail. “They will not take what is happening to Andrew lightly. Their memories of the persecution in Russia have not died.”
And Christel N. Clark—Susan Clark’s daughter and a friend of the Okhotin family, who was present in Moscow for the trial—said she thought thousands of Baptists the world over were praying for Okhotin.
“It’s quite a shock that they could do this to a humanitarian over a technicality,” she said.
A profound faith colored Okhotin’s behavior immediately surrounding his trial Wednesday. Before and after the hearing, he gathered in the hall with his mother, brother and friends for a short prayer. The family was joined by a Baptist minister, Peter Peters, who Okhotin said was imprisoned in the Soviet Union for 11 years because of his religious beliefs.
On the way to the courthouse on Wednesday morning, Peters made a more mundane query—whether he’d packed a bag in case he were convicted that day.
“Peter probably thought I should bring a toothbrush,” Okhotin said. “It’s all so surreal.”
Susan Clark said that as long as the trial went on and Okhotin was kept in Russia, prayer would continue for Okhotin’s safe release from the country.
“We just trust that God would work,” she said. “Our trust has to be in God, not in people.”
For now, Okhotin and those close to him said they were relieved that the first part of the trial was over.
“Today was good,” said Okhotin’s mother, Nadezhda, on Wednesday afternoon. “Next time, we’ll see.”
—Staff writer Anne K. Kofol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at email@example.com.
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