St. Louis graduate student held in Russia

Monday, August 20, 2007

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- A St. Louis graduate student has been detained in Russia for more than two months, after she bought a few medals and old currency from a street vendor. Customs agents told her the items were contraband when she was trying to leave the country at the end of a brief stay.

Roxana Contreras, 29, faces up to seven years in prison, though her supporters say it's all just a misunderstanding.

Contreras, a Chilean citizen from Santiago, has been a physics Ph.D candidate at the University of Missouri-St. Louis since 2004. Her research relates to synchronization in brain activity in traumatically brain injured patients.

Contreras was visiting friends in Voronezh, Russia in June, after attending a conference at the Max Planck Institute for Complex Systems in Dresden, Germany, said her thesis adviser, Sonya Bahar. Bahar is director of the Center for Neurodynamics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Bahar says she'd stake her own reputation on her belief that Contreras hadn't known she was doing anything wrong when she bought the items -- some military medals, currency and coins for $66. The items are believed to be valued at roughly the equivalent of $30, she said.

"They were being sold by a street vendor, so she had no idea they were not supposed to be taken out of the country," Bahar said.

U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., has written to Ambassador Yuri Ushakov about the situation, saying that Russia's right to protect its national heritage is "undeniable."

But, "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. However, her supporters said Russian authorities are still detaining her while she waits for a court date.

Bahar has asked university officials, academics and politicians to vouch for Contreras' character. She fears the outside support may have an unintended consequences. "Whatever we seem to be doing to try and help seems to be making it worse," she said.

The professor said those close to Contreras have some fear for her safety, as the city where she is held has experienced instances of violence against foreign students in recent years.

Contreras has hired a lawyer and rented an apartment in the southern Russian city. Russian officials are reluctant to keep renewing Contreras' visa, but a judge there refused to write a letter explaining the situation to help, her supporters said.

They're concerned she'll be in further violation of the law if her visa expires. The student, 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 want 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?"

Translated legal documents from Russia said Contreras was in possession of six medals, three ruble bills and a ruble coin that resulted in the legal action against her.

Contreras is seeking a change of venue, to have the matter heard in Voronezh, not outside of the city, where it's now scheduled.

Phone calls to a press contact at the Russian embassy went unanswered Monday. An e-mail was also sent to the Chilean consulate in Moscow seeking comment and attempts were made to call Contreras.

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