From a defendant's cage in a Moscow courtroom on April 21, American pastor Phillip Miles quietly listened as a Russian judge found him guilty of smuggling a box of hunting ammunition into the country in late January. The conviction was a blow for Miles, who denies the smuggling charges, and the sentence was severe: three years and two months in prison.
Miles, the pastor of Christ Community Church in Conway, S.C., has been jailed in Moscow since Feb. 3 when Russian authorities detained him at the end of a short-term mission trip to Siberia.
Dominic Starr, a member of Miles' church and an attorney working on his case stateside, told WORLD that Miles, 57, packed in his checked luggage a box of hunting shells as a gift for a friend in Siberia. Starr said the pastor declared the ammunition at the Atlanta airport before leaving the United States. When he arrived in Moscow, Miles and his Russian translator reviewed customs regulations at the airport and thought Miles wasn't required to declare the ammunition, said Starr.
But Russian airport workers stopped Miles in customs, saying such items must be declared. The workers confiscated the ammunition, stamped Miles' passport, and waved him through customs.
From Moscow, Miles and two members of his church flew to Perm, Siberia. The men visited churches supported by Christ Community Church and Evangel Fellowship International, an association of evangelical churches to which Miles' congregation belongs. The group also visited orphanages and a rehab facility.
Miles has led a similar trip to Siberia every January for 13 years, said Starr. At the end of their trip, the group flew back to Moscow.
As they were preparing to leave the country, Russian authorities detained Miles and charged him with smuggling ammunition. For the next two months, Starr assisted Russian attorney Vladimir Ryakhovsky in Miles' defense. The heart of their argument: Smuggling charges imply Miles intended to sneak the ammunition into the country, but Miles and his translator simply misunderstood the requirement to declare the shells to customs.
"Someone who's intending to smuggle something into another country doesn't declare it at his point of origin before he leaves," as Miles did in Atlanta, Starr told WORLD.
At his trial, Miles told the court he had traveled to Russia for years "to serve and give and never asked for anything," according to The Moscow Times. He added: "This is the time when I'd like to make my first request in Russia. I am asking for mercy."
The plea was futile: Judge Olga Drozdova said she believed Miles brought the ammunition as a gift, but said ignorance of the law wasn't an excuse. She found him guilty and imposed a three-year sentence. (The judge added an additional two-month sentence for transporting ammunition without proper paperwork.)
The decision stunned Miles and his attorneys; The Moscow Times called it "unfathomable."
Mark Elliott, a professor at Southern Wesleyan University and editor of the East-West Church and Ministry Report, said the ruling could be a message: "It could be a statement that Russia is tired of Western Protestant presence in Russia."
Jeff Thompson of Eastern European Outreach, a California-based Christian ministry to children in Russia, attempted to enter Moscow on April 9 after an 18-hour trip. An airport official denied his entry. "They gave me two words," Thompson told WORLD: "Visa problem." Officials required Thompson to take the next flight home without explanation.
Starr said Miles' Russian attorney would appeal, a process that typically takes 40-45 days. In the meantime, U.S. State Department officials and South Carolina Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint are making diplomatic contacts with Russian authorities.
U.S. Embassy officials in Moscow visit Miles regularly, and they report he is in good condition. Starr said Miles' wife, four grown children, and two grandchildren are doing "remarkably well."
"He [Miles] believes that this is part of God's plan, and he's content in doing whatever God wants him to do over there," said Starr. "And he feels confident that as long as that's the case he'll be taken care of."