HDS Student Likely To Be Freed Friday

Russian prosecutors ask for suspended sentence in Moscow hearing

Published Thursday, August 21, 2003.

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.