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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Souvenir Hunting Can Be Perilous

Aside from being tourist traps filled with overpriced, low-quality goods, flea markets can pose serious risks to shoppers, as many items are sold that could land you in jail should you be caught trying to leave the country with them.

This is the bitter lesson learned by Roxana Contreras, 29, a Chilean student who is on trial in Voronezh on charges of smuggling old currency and Soviet war medals out of the country. She purchased the souvenirs at an outdoor market in Voronezh, where she had been visiting friends. She has been barred from leaving the city for more than two months, after being stopped at the airport from boarding a flight to Munich in mid-June.

Her case highlights twists in legislation that are little known among travel companies and Western governments, while local authorities are doing little to stop illegal sales of the memorabilia all over the country.

The law stipulates that state awards cannot be treated as normal goods that might change ownership. Rather, they are to be treated as honors bestowed upon individuals by the state.

"The law is dominated by the notion that [medals] are less like objects and more like ideas," said Andrei Goltsov, a lawyer and member of the Independent Legal Experts Council.

By this reasoning, medals granted for personal merits should not be sold, because the state has the sole right to hand them out. "They must not be traded or taken out of the country. Even if found in a roadside ditch, they must be returned [to the original owner or to the state]," Goltsov said.

But medals, coins and other Soviet-era souvenirs for sale throughout the country do not attract much police attention. At a crowded flea market on disused railway tracks north of Savyolovsky Station, such souvenirs sell for less than 100 rubles, or about $4.

Contreras, a doctoral student in physics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in the United States, was unaware of the regulations, said her lawyer, Alexei Andreyeshchev.

Prosecutors retort that ignorance of the law is not innocence.

Contreras has been charged with violating two articles of the Criminal Code: one prohibits the acquisition and sale of official documents and state awards, and the other bans smuggling.

The wrongful acquisition of state awards can result in a fine of up to 80,000 rubles ($3,100), while smuggling carries a potential prison sentence of up to seven years.

"It's a bizarre case," Andreyeshchev said by telephone from Voronezh. He said state awards rarely surfaced in smuggling cases, which usually involve cultural objects like icons.

Most travel advice offered to Western foreigners does not mention Soviet souvenirs. The web sites of both Britain's Foreign Office and the German Foreign Ministry contain no specific information on the matter. "Of course, travelers should be aware of the laws wherever and whenever they go," a spokesman at the British Embassy in Moscow said on customary condition of anonymity. He added that the Foreign Office might examine the case, as it was constantly reviewing its regional travel information.

By contrast, the U.S. State Department's web site explicitly mentions "increasing reports of rigorous searches of baggage and stricter enforcement of customs regulations against the exportation of items of 'cultural value.'" Travelers are advised to obtain receipts for high-value items, including caviar, and obtain certificates indicating that items they have purchased — including artwork, icons, samovars, rugs, military medals and antiques — do not have historical or cultural value.

Tour operators said cases like Contrera's are rare. "Usually it is pieces of art that cause problems," said J?rg Hagenlocher of Olympia Reisen, a German firm that brings 20,000 travelers to Russia each year. Tourists interested in purchasing such items were generally well informed about the restrictions. "We've never had any problems with medals," he said by telephone from Bonn.

Still, some Western diplomats were critical of authorities for not doing more to prevent the sale of historical and cultural items. "When such objects are traded everywhere in the country, foreigners are led to believe that they are legal," said a diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. He said Contrera's case was probably one where "one unfortunate individual has to suffer to heighten awareness of the problem."

The case has also upset human rights campaigners. "The authorities are clearly trying to make an example of this woman," said Alison Gill, head of Human Rights Watch's Moscow office. She said this might be an instance of unequal application of the law, since the police were obviously not cracking down on the widespread trade of such items. "Foreigners should always obey the laws of their host country, but the laws should be applied fairly," she said in a telephone interview.