U.S. Pastor Given 3 Years for Smuggling

MTU.S. pastor Phillip Miles being escorted Monday into the Golovinsky District Court, where he was sentenced to more than three years in prison. Story, Page 3.
A Moscow court Monday convicted a U.S. pastor of smuggling a box of ammunition into the country and sentenced him to more than three years in prison.

The Golovinsky District Court convicted Phillip Miles, 57, of illegally bringing twenty rifle rounds into the country -- hunting ammunition he said was a gift for a friend living in Perm.

The court sentenced Miles, a pastor at the Christ Community Church in Conway, South Carolina, to three years and two months in a medium-security prison. The two months he has spent in custody since being detained at Sheremetyevo Airport in February will count as time served.

Miles arrived at Sheremetyevo on Jan. 29 to visit Eduard Grobovenko, a fellow church member in Perm, bringing him the bullets for his hunting rifle as a gift. Sheremetyevo officials seized the ammunition on Jan. 29, and Miles was detained on Feb. 3.

Miles has admitted to bringing the ammunition into the country but said he did so out of ignorance of Russian law.

"I am very disappointed," Miles told reporters as he was handcuffed and escorted from his cage by two guards following Monday's verdict. "It's a strange sentence for one box of hunting bullets."

Mile's lawyer, Vladimir Ryakhovsky, expressed astonishment at the harsh sentence.

"I wasn't expecting it," Ryakhovsky said. "There is no basis for the court's conclusion that [Miles'] rehabilitation is impossible without isolation from society."

Miles will have 10 days to appeal the verdict after he receives an English translation of the decision, judge Olga Drozdova said.

"Of course, we will appeal," Ryakhovsky said.

Miles looked tense while standing in the defendant's cage and listening to Drozdova's verdict, which was being simultaneously translated to Miles by his interpreter.

Drozdova's strict tone Monday differed radically from her mood at Friday's hearing, when she looked close to tears as she listened to Miles' final plea for leniency.

In his final statement Friday, Miles, who had been visiting Russia for nine years, said he had been coming "to serve and give and never asked for anything."

"This is the time when I'd like to make my first request in Russia: I am asking for mercy," he said in his quiet, gentle voice.

He asked Drozdova to consider "25 years of my life with no mark against my name and one unintentional violation," referring to the number of years his church has been in existence. Miles also said he was suffering from health problems.

After Miles' speech, Drozdova spoke in a low trembling voice, as if she was deeply moved. She muttered the time for Monday's verdict and quickly left the room, her head down the entire time.

During Monday's verdict, Drozdova's sternly noted that travelers were required to familiarize themselves with customs law.

"The court is treating critically the testimony of the accused that he was unaware of the customs rules," she said.

Miles will remain in a local detention facility pending his appeal.