YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Young Baptist Lands in Moscow Jail Cell

Andrew Okhotin failed to declare $48,000 in cash he was carrying as a gift to Russian Baptists. Now he's facing five years in prison.

June 21, 2003|Frank Brown | Religion News Service

MOSCOW — Andrew Okhotin, a Baptist youth pastor, flew from New York to Moscow in late March on a joyful mission. He was going to deliver a $48,000 cash gift from American believers to Russian Baptists, visit for a few days with relatives and then return to the United States and his studies at Harvard Divinity School.

Nearly three months later, Okhotin, 28, is still in Moscow, has yet to hand over the money and, if Moscow prosecutors get their way, could spend five years in a Russian prison.

Russian customs inspectors claim Okhotin is a currency smuggler. On March 29, they allege, he deliberately chose the "nothing to declare" corridor at Moscow's main airport, all the while carrying $48,000 in $50 and $100 bills in his backpack.

Okhotin says he made an innocent mistake by stepping into the wrong corridor.

He was detained and, when customs inspectors discovered how much money he was carrying, interrogated for hours. He said his questioners offered to release him for bribes of $5,000 or $10,000.

As the marathon session wore on without agreement, customs officer Irina Kondratskaya jotted down her home telephone number and the cell phone number of a Moscow lawyer, saying, "Contact him, he'll tell you what to do," Okhotin recalls. The lawyer, Okhotin says, offered to get the charges dropped for $15,000.

The lawyer denies it.

Kondratskaya also denies any wrongdoing. "If Mr. Okhotin is accusing me of bribery, let him talk to my supervisors," she said.

Whatever the facts, Okhotin's case has provoked the indignation of evangelical Christians worldwide.

Supporters are following his journey through the Russian legal system and his 27-day hunger strike and holding prayer appeals on Christian-oriented radio and Web sites.

Okhotin's father was a Soviet-era pastor in an underground Baptist church who spent 2 1/2 years in prison.

The family -- Andrew Okhotin, his parents and his eight siblings -- emigrated to the United States in 1989, settling in San Diego.

Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.) has been following the case, and has enlisted the help of five fellow congressmen in appealing to Russian President Vladimir Putin for Okhotin's release.

Meantime, Okhotin's supporters have held prayer vigils outside the Russian Embassy in Washington and students at Harvard Divinity School have fasted and taken part in a 12-hour prayer service for Okhotin.

The Russian government has not officially responded to the lobbying and petitions aside from a terse June 10 news release from the Foreign Ministry announcing that Okhotin had been detained at the airport for not declaring the $48,000.

According to Okhotin's Moscow lawyer, Russian officials are increasingly irritated at the volume of faxes and missives being received on Okhotin's behalf.

Los Angeles Times Articles