Justice Denied? U.S. Citizen Expected to Serve Five Years Imprisonment in Russia

Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Justice Denied? U.S. Citizen Expected to Serve Five Years Imprisonment in Russia

By Regina Spencer Sipple
Special to ASSIST News Service

MOSCOW, RUSSIA (ANS) -- Barring a miracle, an innocent U.S. citizen is going to spend five years in a Russian prison for a crime he did not commit. Andrew Okhotin’s four months under house arrest and upcoming show trial should outrage anyone who believes in justice. It should also move them to do whatever they can to help.

Andrew Okhotin, a 28-year-old American humanitarian and Harvard divinity student, has spent most of his adult life trying to help the Russian people—especially those in financial need and those facing persecution for their beliefs. Now, Andrew is experiencing the same persecution suffered by so many of the people he has supported over the years through charitable donations of food, clothing, and money. Okhotin’s compassion and lifelong commitment to help those in need led him to fly to Moscow on March 29th to deliver $47,500 in charitable contributions to more than 100 needy Russian families. And for his humanitarian efforts, he is facing five years in a foreign prison.

When Andrew Okhotin arrived in Moscow on March 29th, he was detained while going through customs and subjected to 12 hours of interrogation—during which time he was denied food, water and the right to call the American Embassy. Okhotin was confronted by customs officials with the choice of either paying up to $15,000 in bribes or being charged with smuggling contraband currency. Andrew refused to succumb to extortion, and he has been paying for his refusal with his freedom for four months under house arrest in Moscow. Unless the U.S. State Department quickly comes to his aid, Andrew will spend the next five years in a Russian prison for trying to help poverty-stricken families buy food and clothing. Clearly a “heinous crime” that should strike at the heart of humanitarians around the world.

Steve Brown, staff writer for CNSNews.com, after investigating Andrew’s situation, reported: “A U.S. Embassy official familiar with the case, speaking on condition of anonymity, [regarding the demands for bribes Andrew experienced during 12 hours of interrogation, stated] that such tactics were ‘fairly typical’ under the customs rules used by the former Soviet Union.”

Andrew Okhotin did not break any Russian Federation laws. It is perfectly legal to bring unlimited charitable funds into the country and Article 52 of the Russian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. In reality, however, Christians, Jews, and people of other faiths are harassed, put in prison and regularly fired from their jobs for the crime of living their beliefs. Innocent people are regularly left destitute when their homes and possessions are confiscated by the State and their churches are bull-dozed into the ground. All in a country hit hard by a difficult economy and rife with corruption. Instead of welcoming aid like Okhotin’s, many authorities are bent on stamping out all non-State-controlled churches and continue to persecute their own citizens as well as individuals like Andrew, who was only delivering funds to feed and clothe the needy.

There are numerous examples of the persecution suffered by the people Andrew Okhotin was trying to help. In an article in ASSIST News Service dated June 16, 2003, Stefan J. Bos reported: “Pentecostal Christians in the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia are not allowed to gather for worship amid death threats, while a Baptist church was set on fire amid a government-backed crackdown against religious minorities….” Other humanitarian and religious rights organizations cite similar incidents of persecution. Persecution that many in the West erroneously believe ended with the fall of the Soviet regime.

Shageldy Atakov, whose only “crime” is being a Christian minister in Turkmenistan, was released from prison on January 8, 2002 after serving a two year sentence. Later that month, two KNB (formerly KGB) officers, visited Shageldy at his home, demanding that he stop meeting with fellow Christians. Shageldy replied that he would continue to meet with Christians in spite of the government’s demands. His family and friends support him in his firm stand and pray that he is not headed for another prison term. Russian citizens who choose to exercise their right to practice their beliefs are increasingly torn from their families, leaving their wives and children with little or no income. Shageldy Atakov and his young family are just a few of the people Andrew Okhotin was trying to help with the charitable contributions for humanitarian aid he was carrying.

Andrew’s father, Rev. Vladimir Okhotin, was also imprisoned in Russia in the 1980s for two and a half years for the “crime” of being a pastor, so Andrew is well aware of both the continuing human rights abuses as well as all of the current Russian Federation laws and the way many of them concerning human rights are routinely ignored.

In spite of the interest and intervention by members of Congress—led by Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.)—as well as groups like Amnesty International, Persecution Watch, Voice of the Martyrs and Russian Evangelistic Ministries, to name just a few, Russian authorities have made it clear that they plan on putting Andrew Okhotin in prison for five years. Letters and petitions, international radio broadcasts including the Voice of America as well as newspaper articles from The Boston Globe to the San Diego Union-Tribune have had no visible effect on the Russian authorities who, after four months of investigation, seem determined to sentence Andrew Okhotin to five years in prison for supposedly trying to smuggle contraband currency. A crime he obviously did not commit.

There has been a worldwide campaign since March 29th to collect signatures on petitions that have been sent to President George W. Bush, Dr. Condoleeza Rice, and Secretary of State Colin Powell requesting their help. Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.), who has known the Okhotin family for more than a decade, has also spearheaded an effort among other members of Congress to send a letter to President Putin.

In an article by Steve Brown of CNS News, Rep. Pitts explained in part why he is actively involved in trying to get Andrew Okhotin released and the charitable funds returned. “I know this family,” Pitts said, noting that he has been tracking the Okhotin case ‘all along’ and stating that he ‘had been hung up on several times by Russian officials. ‘I think it’s a scam,’ Pitts said. ‘They’re being very bureaucratic. The old communists, basically, are still in charge. I think it’s a matter of corrupt officials.”

The letter Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) sent to President Putin, was also signed by Reps. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), Frank Wolf (R-Va.), Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), Christopher Smith (R.-N.J.) and Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), stated that they were “concerned about the harassment, detention and confiscation of funds from Mr. Okhotin and what it might indicate regarding the ability of charitable organizations to operate in Russia and serve the needs of the Russian people.”

Justice is a right guaranteed to citizens of the United States and most other civilized countries: A right that many of us take for granted except when faced with an egregious situation like the one Andrew Okhotin has been living through for the past four months. In the former Soviet Union, however, the word “justice” apparently holds no meaning for many corrupt Russian officials who openly demand bribes from foreigners and regularly harass and imprison their own citizens—especially those who profess a belief in God. They repeatedly and blatantly disregard both their own laws and the rights of foreigners to even contact their own embassies when arrested.

In a recent letter, Andrew stated that, “The U.S. Embassy has tried to assure me that they will be in court to ensure justice under the Russian law. Knowing how blatantly rules were violated during the investigation, such promises by the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. State Department—however well-intentioned—are not very reassuring.

The original investigator in the case, Olga Pugacheva, told Okhotin and his attorney that she found no evidence of wrong-doing in the case. She has since reported being pressured by unnamed authorities to change her views. In addition, in spite of the fact that Deputy Prosecutor Lunev was not even aware of all of the facts of the case when he met with Okhotin and his attorney, Deputy Prosecutor Lunev kept insisting that Andrew was guilty. All subsequent meetings between Okhotin, his attorney, and Russian officials have reportedly been very discouraging. The Russian authorities are apparently intent on putting Andrew in prison for five years and only concerted prayer, pressure from the U.S. government and human rights organizations, as well as substantial media attention will save him at this point.

Andrew Okhotin is urgently requesting any help he can get from Christians, concerned citizens, humanitarian groups, and the media. He firmly believes that without the help of our government and the press, they will convict him and send him to prison.

Andrew Okhotin is not only a firm believer and great humanitarian, he is also my dear friend. Please help him. Please ask people to pray, contact your elected representatives, and local news organizations. You can also send letters via fax to:
Ambassador Yuri Ushakov Fax: 202-298-5735
Dr. Condoleeza Rice Fax: 202-456-2883
Colin Powell Fax: 202-261-8577
Rep. Joseph R. Pitts Tel: 202-225-2411
Russian Evangelistic Ministries Fax/Tel: 858-549-4188

May God help us all if our government allows the Russians to send another innocent man to prison.

Regina Spencer Sipple is an award-winning writer and humanitarian activist who was arrested by the KGB, strip-searched, put in jail and then deported in 1985 for attempting to take food, clothing, and money to needy Christian families into Russia. Regina firmly believes that without the worldwide attention generated by AP, UPI, and Reuters, she would have been charged with black marketing and sentenced to eight years in prison.