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MOSCOW—The Harvard Divinity School (HDS) student on trial in Russia for allegedly trying to smuggle $48,000 into that country will likely be a free man Friday, it was indicated at a hearing yesterday.
A verdict, which was originally expected at the hearing, has been delayed two more days, but prosecutors announced that they are only seeking a six month suspended sentence against the student, Andrew J. Okhotin.
Okhotin has been prohibited from leaving Russia since he was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo II airport on March 29, with $48,000 in cash in a backpack he was carrying. Though he had a form declaring the money—which Okhotin has said was charitable collections intended for destitute Christians in his birth country—Okhotin walked down the airport’s green “nothing to declare” corridor. Okhotin’s lawyer argued at his trial last week that he had made an innocent mistake.
According to Stephan P. Sonnenberg, a Harvard Human Rights Project fellow who has been advising Okhotin , the sentence of “uslovno,” or conditional punishment, would mean Okhotin would be free to return to the U.S. following a verdict Friday, in time to register for fall classes at the Divinity School. The charges against Okhotin carry a maximum sentence of five years.
Sonnenberg speculated that the prosecutors had requested the lighter sentence in the hope of winning a guilty verdict despite weak evidence.
Prosecutors declined to comment on their sentencing request.
Though relieved he would most likely not face jail time, Okhotin said yesterday that he was still hopeful he would be found not guilty and concerned over the fate of the $48,000.
"At least I know I won't have to bring my tooth brush [on Friday]," Okhotin joked, referring to his minister's advice before the last hearing that he come prepared to be taken to prison.
In his closing statement yesterday, Okhotin reiterated his devotion to his church and pleaded with the judge to allow his mission to be completed.
"I would like to ask you to give the money back," Okhotin said before the small courtroom packed with friends, family members and journalists. "It doesn't matter what decision you will make about me."
After the closing statements and more testimony from customs officials and Okhotin's brother during the hearing yesterday, Judge Igor Yakovlev adjourned the court, saying he would issue a verdict in the case at 10 a.m. on Friday.
As at last week’s trial, Okhotin's lawyers tried to break down the picture of the HDS student as a deceptive smuggler. At one point, Okhotin's lawyers had him hold up the backpack to show that he did not carry the money in a secret compartment, but simply in the second zippered pocket of his book bag.
The lawyers, Vladimir Ryakhovski and Anatoli Pchelintsev, also showed the judge new letters sent in support of Okhotin from Harvard professors, church members and politicians, prompting Yakovlev to wryly ask Okhotin, "Why and how did you become so popular?"
For the first time in the trial, the lawyers also introduced Okhotin's claim that customs officials offered to release him in return for a bribe after stopping him at the airport.
In his testimony before the court, David Okhotin said that when his brother called him from the airport to say he had been detained by customs, he told him that the officials had tried to solicit first a $10,000 and then a $5,000 bribe from him. David said he had urged Andrew not to give them any money or sign any documents without counsel.
Andrew Okhotin has said he has not decided whether to seek a case against the customs officials on bribery charges.
Despite the announcement at last week's trial that the verdict would be handed down after closing statements today, the prosecution and defense also had the opportunity to re-examine a customs agent and bag handler who had testified at trial. A customs specialist, Alexei Petrovich Ionov, was also brought in to give his evaluation of Okhotin's behavior at the airport.
With Alla Konstanovna Tomas, a new prosecutor on the case, mostly silent, Judge Yakovlev led the questioning of the agents in order to gauge how cooperative Okhotin had been when stopped.
Andrei Sergeevich Demakin, the customs agent who first stopped Okhotin as he walked through the airport’s green corridor, recalled Okhotin evading his question about whether he had any money besides the ten dollars he first revealed when asked how much money he was carrying.
Vladimir Vasilievich Dudakov, the bag handler called in to witness the questioning of Okhotin, also said Okhotin had been uncooperative with customs—though when pressed by the judge, he said he could not remember specifically how Okhotin had been belligerent.
Ionov emphasized in his testimony that he believed Okhotin was deliberately deceptive in carrying the $48,000 through the green corridor.
"Not knowing the law does not free you from the responsibility [to obey it]," he said. Okhotin’s U.S. based network of supporters continued to hope for the best yesterday, and struggled to understand what the prosecutors’ sentencing request meant.
Several said that any implication of guilt—conditional or not—was unfair, and some wondered why the judge did not issue a verdict as originally expected.
“That’s good news certainly,” Divinity School Professor David Little said when informed of the day’s events. But Little, who taught Okhotin, added that “there are problems if [Okhotin] is convicted even with a suspended sentence,” noting that it could prevent him from returning to Russia or from retrieving the $48,000.
Divinity School spokesperson Wendy McDowell said that should Okhotin be free to leave the country Friday, he would have no difficulty registering for classes, since registration is not until after Labor Day.
Since Okhotin was arrested on March 29 on his way into Russia, Baptists around the world have been praying for him and offering support.
Okhotin and his family members have questioned whether the Russian government's prosecution of Okhotin is related to his support of Baptists in a country dominated by the Russian Orthodox Church.
Susan Clark, who has helped organize Okhotin’s supporters, said that she would continue her own efforts.
“I’m very encouraged at this point, but I think it’s too early to stop praying,” she said.
A surprise from Okhotin’s brother will have to wait a little longer as well.
David Okhotin brought a bouquet of flowers—wrapped in newspaper to hide them from his brother—to give to Andrew after the judge issued a verdict. David said after the hearing that the Christian tradition of showering those persecuted for their faith with flowers would have to wait a few more days—and that he would have to buy a new bouquet.
--Simon W. Vozick-Levinson contributed to the reporting of this story.
--Staff writer Anne K. Kofol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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