Russian prosecutors drop smuggling charge against St. Louis student who bought medals

Saturday, September 1, 2007

MOSCOW -- A St. Louis student is free to return to the United States, after Russian prosecutors dropped a smuggling charge against her on Friday.

Roxana Contreras had been prohibited from leaving Russia for 2 1/2 months. She had faced a possible 7-year prison sentence on charges related to buying old currency and military medals as souvenirs from a street vendor. She was fined for buying Soviet-era medals.

The developments in a courtroom near the city of Voronezh ended a summer-long ordeal for Contreras, 29. The Chilean woman was stopped at the airport there in mid-June with old bank notes, coins and medals in her luggage and later charged with smuggling and the illegal purchase of state awards.

The court convicted Contreras on the illegal purchasing charge and fined her 15,000 rubles, or the equivalent of $585, said her lawyer, Alexei Andreyeshev. He spoke by telephone from Voronezh, about 300 miles south of Moscow. Prosecutors dropped the smuggling charge.

"They came to understand that this was a baseless charge," said Andreyeshev, who argued that Contreras could not be found guilty because she had no intention of committing a crime. "It took them quite a while to acknowledge this."

A conviction on the smuggling charge would likely have prompted angry protests from Chilean officials and supporters of Contreras in the United States, where she is a graduate student in physics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., had written to Ambassador Yuri Ushakov in support of Contreras. He said Friday he was pleased the case was resolved and Contreras will be able to return to her research.

Contreras' boyfriend, Fred Scherrer, 41, of St. Louis said, "She's feeling a lot better and very relieved this is over with finally."

Contreras' thesis adviser, Sonya Bahar, said, "It's been 76 days of continuous tension and fear and uncertainty." She said the focus now is on getting the student safely home.

The charges stemmed from three early 20th-century bank notes, a 1924 coin and six World War II and later Soviet-era state medals that Contreras bought at a flea market in Voronezh as souvenirs, the lawyer said. Such items are sold at outdoor markets catering to tourists across Russia.

But it is illegal to buy or sell state awards, and to take items considered culturally significant out of Russia without permission.

The maximum fine for the charge Contreras was convicted of is 80,000 rubles, or $3,100 in the United States.

Prosecutors had asked the court to fine her 5,000 rubles, equivalent to $195 in the United States.

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