(CNSNews.com) - On the 73rd day of house detention and the 18th day of a hunger strike, American citizen Andrew Okhotin awaits the outcome of a Russian criminal investigation holding up both his personal freedom and the $48,000 in humanitarian aid he had hoped to deliver to the country of his birth. Russian Customs officials have until Wednesday to decide whether to charge Okhotin with the attempted smuggling of contraband currency.
According to Okhotin, his March 28 arrest by Russian customs officials at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport escalated after a minor incident in which he mistakenly entered the wrong customs line. A "few corrupt officials," Okhotin told CNSNews.com, then attempted to "extort" part of the money, which he said had been intended to help Christians in Russia build churches and schools and also for needy families.
Under Russian law, travelers without stamped customs forms may take only $1,500 or less out of Russia. Those with stamped declaration forms may take out a sum no greater than the sum declared upon entry.
Prior to landing at the airport, Okhotin said he "asked the flight attendant about what to do if I'm carrying money with me." The attendant then asked him if he was planning on bringing any of it back out of Russia when he departed, to which he said "No."
"In that case, she said, she didn't think I'd even have to declare it," Okhotin said.
However, Okhotin said he filled out a declaration form anyway for the $48,000 "just in case somebody asks me." After deplaning, he proceeded through the green customs corridor designated for non-declarations of currency.
Okhotin said that halfway down the corridor, Russian Customs Officer Andrei Demakin stopped him and asked if he had any foreign currency and whether it had been declared. Okhotin said yes to both questions, but instead of being directed back to the red corridor designated for currency declarations, Okhotin said Demakin detained him, confiscated the $48,000 and subjected him to "intense" interrogation for 12 hours. During this time, Okotin alleges, he was denied food, water and the ability to contact the U.S. Embassy until he was placed under house arrest.
In a May 23 letter to Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, Okhotin explained that in the interrogation room, "there began numerous proposals about how to solve this question.
"To the refusal (to admit guilt) on my part, the customs interrogator (Irina Kondratskaya) became irritated and started using threats... I was released only when I was signed for by several men," Okhotin wrote, adding that he did not know the men signing on his behalf and that his release was conditional on him meeting with a "recommended lawyer."
Okhotin indicated that Kondratskaya told him if he chose to flee the country, Russian officials would not attempt to stop him, but they would also not return the money. That option, Okhotin wrote, was unacceptable.
The lawyer recommended by customs officials, Igor Tokarev, "without asking me about the details of the case nor consulting the legislature, immediately turned to concrete numbers," Okhotin wrote in his letter to Putin.
The letter also alleges that Tokarev told Okhotin: "The case is as follows: If you will pay $15,000, you will receive the entire sum back. The forms will be rewritten, and everything will be done in such a way that everything will be returned to you.
"If you will pay $10,000, you can count on half" of the $48,000, Tokarev is alleged to have told Okhotin. "Noticing my disbelief," Okhotin wrote Putin, "the lawyer continued: 'If you will not take this route, I promise you that you will not receive anything back.'
"On moral and ethical grounds, I couldn't pay the bribes," Okhotin told CNSNews.com.
'A shakedown, pure and simple'
"It was a shakedown, pure and simple," Okhotin's friend and fellow humanitarian activist Regina Spencer Sipple said in a press release. "Andrew refused to accept any of their 'deals' to let him leave the country instead of facing five years of imprisonment under Article 188, Section 1 of the Russian Criminal Code for allegedly smuggling contraband currency."
A U.S. Embassy official familiar with the case, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Demakin claimed Okhotin was "non-responsive" when asked if he had currency to declare and that Okhotin eventually declared only $10.
The U.S. Embassy official alleged that Tokarev "appears to be a middle man in a bribe" and that such tactics were "fairly typical" under the customs rules used by the former Soviet Union.
"It was a scam. He (Tokarev) was trying to get money," the U.S. official told CNSNews.com. "He was making promises that he could never fulfill, and there was really no way to prove that it was customs officials directly asking for a bribe. We know that this has happened before, and it's the same lawyer."
The U.S. Embassy helped Okhotin get a new attorney, Anatoly Pchelintstev, who is "well known in the human rights community," according to the embassy official.
Okhotin said Russian Customs investigator Olga Pugacheva initially could find no wrongdoing on his part. The case was then sent to the Moscow prosecutor's office under the Ministry of the Interior, where Okhotin hoped it would be dismissed. But after "doing nothing for a month and a half" with the case, according to Okhotin, Interior Ministry officials sent it back to Pugacheva.
Okhotin claimed Pugacheva was "pressured" by the Interior prosecutor "to make a decision that was contrary to her professional opinion" and that Pugacheva admitted as much in a conversation with Okhotin. "You cannot imagine what has been mounting up against me," Okhotin said Pugacheva confided to him.
Hunger strike, letters, petitions
On May 21, Okhotin began his hunger strike to protest the actions of the Moscow prosecutor's office, which he said was "corrupt beyond belief." At this point, Okhotin, his friends and family sent letters and petitions to Putin, President George W. Bush and other U.S. government leaders asking for help.
Several members of Congress sent their own letter to Putin.
"The actions of customs officials Demakin and Kondratskaya seem inappropriate in light of clear evidence of Mr. Okhotin's innocence," stated a May 23 letter to Putin from Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.). Pitts is also familiar with the case involving Okhotin's father, Rev. Vladimir A. Okhotin. The Baptist minister was imprisoned for two and a half years in the former Soviet Union for religious activism before being released through a prisoner exchange with former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev and the Reagan Administration in 1987.
Vladimir Okhotin later relocated to the United States, along with his wife, son Andrew and other family members, all of whom became U.S. citizens. Vladimir remains active in efforts to spread Christianity in Russia and helped raise some of the $48,000 his son was intending to deliver to Russia.
Andrew said his father inspired him in taking "an interest in human rights for religious minorities" throughout the world and that it formed the basis for his post-graduate studies at Harvard, which he was attending before his trip to Moscow.
Pitts told CNSNews.com he used to advocate on behalf of "pastors and churches" in the old Soviet Union through letter-writing campaigns and other interventions with Soviet officials.
"I know this family. These are as honest of people as you could ever meet," Pitts said, noting that he has been tracking the Okhotin case "all along" and had "been hung up on several times" by Russian officials.
"I think it's a scam," Pitts said. "They're being very bureaucratic. The old communists, basically, are still in charge. I think it's a matter of corrupt officials."
Pitts' letter to Putin, which was also signed by Reps. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), Frank Wolf (R-Va.), Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) and Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), stated that they were "concerned about the harassment, detention and confiscation of funds from Mr. Okhotin and what it might indicate regarding the ability of charitable organizations to operate in Russia and serve the needs of the Russian people."
"They see some easy money here, and it's terrible because this money is given just for humanitarian, charitable purposes," Pitts told CNSNews.com. "For these corrupt officials to do this is just outrageous."
Waiting for an outcome
Russian Customs officials interviewed Andrew Okhotin three more times Thursday, which Okhotin characterized as "positive" and "substantiated what I've been saying all along."
During the sessions, Okhotin said "it was obvious" to both himself and Pugacheva that the customs witnesses from the airport "had been coached in what to say" and were having unnatural lapses of memory over some of the details. At one point, Okhotin said Pugacheva warned the witnesses that they could be held criminally liable for falsifying information.
Okhotin said information had surfaced since the prior investigation that "tends to support my account of events." He said Pugacheva has until June 11 to decide whether to charge him criminally for attempting to smuggle contraband, which could lead to a five-year prison sentence, or administratively, which holds no threat of prison time but may involve a fine. Okhotin said he is "not willing to accept" either outcome.
"The third possibility is that they might dismiss the case and return all the money, which is what I've been asking for all along," Okhotin said. "I hope that there is some integrity in this process, though honestly, I doubt it. We'll see what the outcome will be."
Okhotin said he is thankful for the support and prayers he has received but expressed "big disappointment" that "apparently" neither Bush nor Secretary of State Colin Powell brought the matter up in their most recent visit to Russia.
Pitts, who indicated early on that he made the Bush administration aware of Okhotin's case, said he would "continue to pressure" the White House to press the issue "through all available venues."
"I'm like a toothache; I won't go away," Pitts said, adding that it was "very poor public relations" for "corrupt" Russian officials to refuse to dismiss the case.
"Corruption is something that will really kill democracy and the rule of law," Pitts said, noting that the Russians "need to root out this stuff if they're going to have a better way of life or better trade. You can't get very many businessmen to go in there and risk capital dealing with these kinds of individuals."
Repeated phone calls seeking reaction from officials at the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., were not returned.
Read Page 1 of Okhotin's letter to Putin
Read Page 2 of Okhotin's letter to Putin
Read Page 1 of congressional letter to Putin
Read Page 2 of congressional letter to Putin
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