A Chilean graduate student has been held in Russia for more than two months after customs officials found several Soviet medals and currency she bought from a street vendor.
Roxana Contreras, 29, faces up to seven years in prison, her supporters say. She "acquired USSR state honors illegally" and attempted to export them, according to Russian court documents.
Supporters in the United States say the physics student was visiting friends in the southern city of Voronezh and probably did not realize she was doing anything wrong when she bought the six military medals, currency and coins for $66 (49 EUR) and tried to bring them on the plane home with her.
"They were being sold by a street vendor, so she had no idea they were not supposed to be taken out of the country," said Sonya Bahar, the director of the Center for Neurodynamics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Rep. Todd Akin, who represents Missouri in Congress, has written to Russian Ambassador Yuri Ushakov inquiring about the case.
Russia's right to protect its national heritage is "undeniable," he wrote. 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.
Contreras has hired a lawyer and rented an apartment. 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 are concerned she'll be in further violation of the law if her visa expires. Contreras, 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?"
Phone calls to the Russian embassy went unanswered Monday. An e-mail was also sent to the Chilean consulate in Moscow seeking comment. Attempts were also made to reach Contreras.