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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Foreigner Held Over Soviet Medals

MTA woman selling Soviet-era medals and badges on Tverskaya Ulitsa. Medals shopping got Contreras in trouble.
A Chilean student has been detained in Voronezh for more than two months after customs officials found old currency and several Soviet medals she bought from a street vendor.

Roxana Contreras, 29, faces up to seven years in prison, her supporters say. She "acquired U.S.S.R. state honors illegally" and attempted to export them, Voronezh court documents say.

Supporters say Contreras, a physics graduate student from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, was visiting friends in Voronezh and probably did not realize she was doing anything wrong when she bought the items for $66 and tried to take them on a flight from Voronezh to Munich in mid-June. Customs officials found World War II military medals, old silver coins, and three early 20th-century bank notes, the Regnum news agency reported Tuesday.

"They were being sold by a street vendor, so she had no idea they were not supposed to be taken out of the country," said Sonya Bahar, the director of the Center for Neurodynamics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

U.S. Representative Todd Akin, who represents Missouri in Congress, has written to Russian Ambassador Yury Ushakov inquiring about the case.

Russia's right to protect its national heritage is "undeniable," he wrote. "There are many at the university who vouch for the integrity of Ms. Contreras and who are convinced that this incident is the result of an unfortunate error. It is my understanding that in similar cases contraband is rightfully confiscated, but that individuals are usually detained only for grave offenses."

In a follow-up letter, Akin wrote that the ambassador's office told him by telephone that Contreras had been released. Her supporters said authorities were still detaining her while she waited for a court date, however.

Phone calls to the Russian Embassy in Washington went unanswered.

A woman who picked up the phone at the Chilean Embassy in Moscow said no one was available for comment Tuesday.

Prosecutors in the Voronezh district where Contreras faces trial declined to comment.

Attempts were also made to reach Contreras.

Bahar has asked university officials, academics and politicians to vouch for Contreras' character, but she fears the outside support may have unintended consequences.

"Whatever we seem to be doing to try and help seems to be making it worse," she said.

Contreras has hired a lawyer and rented an apartment. Russian officials have been reluctant to keep renewing Contreras' visa, but a judge there refused to write a letter explaining the situation to help, her supporters said. They are concerned she will be in further violation of the law if her visa expires.

Contreras, who previously studied in Russia, is trying to improve her language skills and bought a guitar to pass time.

"Some days she's all right," Bahar said. "Other days she's just devastated."

Contreras' boyfriend, Fred Scherrer, 41, of St. Louis, said, "She has been put on, we would call it, city arrest."

He said officials wanted to be able to reach her at all times.

He thinks the items may have been intended as a gift for him, but said neither he nor his girlfriend collected medals or currency.

"We don't understand it from an American point of view. Why would they detain a traveler for two months?"