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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An American, $48,000 and Customs

MTAndrew Okhotin
On a Saturday morning, Andrew Okhotin arrived at Sheremetyevo aboard a flight from New York with $48,000 and a properly filled-out customs declaration form in his pocket. The 28-year-old U.S. citizen crossed the white line into the green corridor for passengers who have nothing to declare.

What happened next will be left up to a court to decide next month.

Okhotin, a Baptist missionary, says customs officials threatened him and tried to extract a hefty bribe. Customs says it caught him red-handed trying to smuggle in money.

Okhotin, who was charged Monday with smuggling, faces up to five years in prison if convicted.

The case has sparked an uproar in U.S. religious circles, and Okhotin has become the subject of many a prayer vigil. Several members of Congress have signed an appeal to President Vladimir Putin. And the Baptist-affiliated Russian Evangelistic Ministries, a San Diego-based nonprofit group founded by Okhotin's father, a former Soviet religious dissident who emigrated to the United States in 1989, has fired off letters to senior U.S. and Russian officials.

The bitter irony of the dispute is Okhotin never would have run into trouble if he had chosen the red corridor, where customs officials would have stamped his declaration and waved him on his way.

Okhotin said he had made the trip before with large amounts of in-kind donations -- clothing for orphans and the like -- and never had any trouble in the green corridor. He headed for the green corridor again when he arrived with the $48,000 on March 29.

"I was told by a stewardess in the plane that I actually don't have to declare the money I bring into Russia if I don't intend to take it out of the country, but I filled out the declaration form, just in case anybody asked me about it," Okhotin, looking gaunt after a 27-day hunger strike, said in an interview this week.

"I took the green corridor, as I had done earlier when coming to Russia. If they had told me that this wasn't allowed, I would have gone through the red corridor," he said.

The $48,000 was from donations collected by members of the Russian Evangelistic Ministries and intended for the work of Baptist believers in Russia, said Okhotin, a Harvard student.

A customs official stopped Okhotin and asked whether he was carrying any money and had a declaration form. Okhotin said he replied yes to both questions.

Asked to show the money and declaration, Okhotin complied. He said he also produced a letter from the donors, explaining the origins of the money and its intended purpose.

Instead of redirecting him to the red corridor, however, customs officials detained him, confiscated the money and subjected him to an "intense" 12-hour interrogation, Okhotin said.

"I was not given any food or drink during this time," he said. "Also, they threatened to jail me."

He said a customs investigator, Irina Kondratskaya, told him he had two options: be jailed immediately or pay $10,000 and walk free.

"She said that if I didn't pay now, she would take my case to prosecutors and that they would open a criminal case against me," Okhotin said. "I refused to pay, and she, thinking that I misunderstood her offer, told me to discuss it with my brother David, who lives in Moscow."

A call to his brother did not resolve the issue.

Several hours later, Okhotin said, Kondratskaya offered to let him go for $5,000. He refused again.

At about midnight, Kondratskaya agreed to let Okhotin go home with his brother, who had arrived at the airport in the meantime, on condition that he sign a promise not to leave Moscow.

Okhotin said he refused because Kondratskaya would not give him a document showing customs had confiscated the money. "I told her, 'If you are going to seize the money, you can hold me as well,'" he said.

However, after talking by telephone with his parents in California and U.S. Embassy officials, he agreed to leave.

Kondratskaya denied any wrongdoing Thursday.

"I found that Okhotin had violated the law with his actions at customs and, by law, I had to detain him for two days or release him on bail," she said in a telephone interview.

She said she had not asked for a bribe and had generously let Okhotin go without posting bail.

"It's absurd that I would offer to close his case, because several non-customs officials had already signed reports about the matter," Kondratskaya said. "Internal affairs would have immediately found out about it and held me responsible."

She also said she had offered Okhotin a document showing customs had confiscated the money.

Okhotin said Kondratskaya gave him the telephone number of a Moscow lawyer, Igor Tokarev, while he was being questioned.

Kondratskaya said that under the law she has to give a suspect access to a lawyer and that she provided Okhotin with the first name she came across in her files.

Okhotin said he received a call from the lawyer three days later.

"He told me that for $15,000 the criminal case against me could be closed and the money returned," Okhotin said. "He told me that the papers in my case would be rewritten and the incriminating parts removed."

Reached by telephone Thursday, Tokarev said he could not recall ever speaking with Okhotin and said he never would have made such an offer.

The police took over the investigation in mid-April, and Okhotin went on the hunger strike May 21.

Part of the reason the investigation dragged on was because the police had trouble finding witnesses who could testify that Okhotin had refused to show his declaration form, Okhotin said. He said police investigator Olga Pugachyova all but decided to close the case for lack of evidence last week.

However, Okhotin said Pugachyova told him that she was forced to complete the investigation after coming under pressure from Moscow prosecutor Viktor Kozlov.

Pugachyova refused to discuss the case Thursday. Kozlov could not be reached for comment this week.

The Foreign Ministry released a statement last week saying that Okhotin had broken the law and would be prosecuted.

When Okhotin was charged Monday, he ended his hunger strike. He said he lost 15 kilograms.

Okhotin said he is worried about the trial and fears he might be the victim of religious persecution.

"I have no hope of a fair trial," he said. "There is no guarantee that the judge won't be ordered to convict me against all logic and the law."

His lawyer, Anatoly Pchelintsev, said the case was the unfortunate result of an attempted shakedown at customs.

"The case is not political or religious," he said. "It is just the story of a shakedown that turned public. All of the officials involved are now doing their best to save face by helping convict my client.

He said, however, that the case is lacking a key component: Investigators have failed to prove that his client deliberately attempted to smuggle in the money.

"Under the law, Okhotin at most should walk free after paying a fine for his negligence," he said.

He said the police would send the results of their investigation to prosecutors on Friday or Monday and the case should go to court in early July.