U.S. Pastor's Sentence Is Suspended

MTMiles celebrating the Moscow City Court's decision on a video link. "Hallelujah!" he said after hearing the news.
The Moscow City Court on Monday commuted the prison sentence of a U.S. pastor convicted of smuggling rifle ammunition into the country and ordered his release.

Judge Natalya Nikishina reduced Phillip Miles' three-year sentence to 10 months suspended and said he could be released as early as Tuesday morning.

Miles, a pastor at the Christ Community Church in Conway, South Carolina, watched Monday's hearing from jail via video link and was jubilant after hearing Nikishina overturn his sentence by a lower court.

"Hallelujah!" Miles, his arms spread wide, exclaimed after his interpreter told him he would be freed.

With six other inmates in tracksuits looking on curiously behind him in his cell, Miles then looked toward the ceiling, clutched his hands as if in prayer and said, "Thank you, Jesus."

Miles, 57, arrived at Sheremetyevo Airport on Jan. 29 to visit a fellow church member in Perm, bringing with him 20 rifle rounds as a gift.

Customs officials seized the ammunition, and Miles was detained on Feb. 3. In April, Moscow's Golovinsky District Court convicted Miles of illegally bringing the ammunition into the country and sentenced him to three years and two months in a medium-security prison.

Following final statements by the defense and the prosecution, Nikishina conferred with two other judges for about 15 minutes before issuing her ruling.

With the ruling, the court partially satisfied the appeal by Miles' defense, which asked that his smuggling conviction be overturned and that he pay a fine rather than serving time in prison.

On Monday, Miles pleaded for leniency. "Please do not destroy my life over one box of hunting bullets," Miles asked the judges.

Miles had repeatedly maintained that he unknowingly broke the law by bringing the ammunition for his friend in Perm, Eduard Grobovenko, who had purchased a new rifle. Testifying in April, Grobovenko described Miles' actions as "a human mistake on the part of my friend."

Miles took the same tack Monday. "I have been in prison for five months because of my ignorance of the customs laws," he said. "I would ask the court to let this be sufficient punishment for my ignorance."

Miles' lawyer, Vladimir Ryakhovsky, told the judges that "sincerity and decency" were two of his client's strongest character traits.

"He has served people for 30 years," Ryakhovsky said, referring Miles' religious work. "I cannot agree that this person deserves to be isolated from society."