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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Australian Jailed for Tax Evasion

ST. PETERSBURG -- An Australian businessman now in his third week in the infamous Kresty Prison has the dubious distinction of being the first Westerner locked up by the tax police in St. Petersburg.

Robert Burston, 42, was detained Jan. 17 for alleged nonpayment of taxes in the operation of his business. He was later transferred to the notoriously overcrowded prison, where he is being held pending an investigation.

The son of Russian emigr?s, Burston has worked as an independent construction consultant since coming to Russian in 1993.

"He said, 'I'm going to move to Russia, marry a Russian woman and become Russian like my ancestors," said his Russian wife, Lena Burston. "Maybe he should have thought twice."

Burston's nightmare began when he and his wife were requested to report to the local Migration Services office Jan. 17. They were met by an officer who took them to tax police headquarters for questioning about a firm started by Burston and Russian partners in 1993.

Mrs. Burston returned home that evening to their 8-month-old son, but authorities held her husband, charging him with failing to pay taxes estimated at 86 million rubles ($18,600).

Mrs. Burston said her husband's firm collapsed after less than a year when its Russian partners disappeared. Burston, who contends he was told that new companies were exempt from paying taxes for the first three years, continued working independently but did not declare his income.

Burston's attorney, Gary Mkrtichyan, said the charges stem from about five contracts Burston concluded as an independent contractor for reconstruction and apartment renovation. He said he is trying to determine why Burston was suddenly arrested with no apparent warnings or imposition of fines, as usually is the case in tax matters.

Mrs. Burston speculated that tax officials were trying to make an example of her husband. "If they arrest him, it will make others more frightened," she said.

She said her husband has signed a statement that he did not agree with the charges, and technically had 10 days to offer an explanation. She said, however, that tax police searched the family's apartment and took all records that could be used in his defense.

When she inquired about bail, Mrs. Burston said, she was asked for $100,000.

When she was allowed to visit her husband last Tuesday at Kresty Prison, he told her he was sharing a six-bed cell with 10 Russian prisoners.

Tax police spokesman Vladimir Alexandrov said Burston could be held there for up to six months during the investigation. He said a foreigner's nationality has no bearing on his rights under Russian law.

Officials at the Australian Embassy in Moscow said they are monitoring the situation closely. "To the best of our knowledge, he's being treated just the same as any Russian citizen," said Consul Geoffrey Becher.

Alexandrov said the tax police and the embassy had agreed not to divulge details of the case. Becher said he was not personally aware of a formal agreement, but added, "We don't like to advertise these things."