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Chilean woman tried in Russian for buying souvenirs

A Chilean woman went to trial in Russia on Tuesday on a smuggling charge. She was stopped from leaving the country with several medals and old currency she bought as souvenirs.

Roxana Contreras, 29, has been barred from leaving the city of Voronezh since mid-June, when she was stopped at an airport with the decades-old currency and medals that her lawyer said she bought from a street vendor at a flea market.

Three early 20th century bank notes she bought and a 1924 coin she was given drew the smuggling charge, said the lawyer, Alexei Andreyeshev. If convicted, she could be sentenced to between three to seven years in prison, he said.

Contreras, a graduate student in physics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in the United States, is also charged with the illegal acquisition of official documents and state awards, which carries a fine of up to 80,000 rubles (US$3,100; EUR2,300).

That charge relates to six medals she bought at the main flea market in Voronezh, Andreyeshev said. He said experts valued the items at less than 1,000 rubles (US$40; EUR30).

Contreras says she is not guilty, Andreyeshev said.

The lawyer criticized prosecutors for charging Contreras over the kind of items that are widely available as souvenirs at street markets throughout Russia. "Walk into any antique store in the country and you will see things far more serious than this (for sale)," he said.

He said when customs agents removed the items from Contreras' luggage at the airport on June 14, it would have been appropriate to simply confiscate them and fine her, rather than pursuing charges.

Russian law requires those taking such items out of the country to get official permission.

"There was no intent to commit a crime - without intent there is no crime," Andreyeshev said by telephone.

Prosecutors, however, said ignorance of the law is not innocence.

"Not knowing the law does not free her from responsibility," Mikhail Popov, deputy transport prosecutor in the Voronezh region, said on Monday. He would not say what sentence prosecutors would request for Contreras if she is found guilty of smuggling.

The trial in the town of Ramon, outside Voronezh and about 475 kilometers (300 miles) south of Moscow, was adjourned until Thursday and could wrap up that day, Andreyeshev said.

Contreras has been working on her Ph.D. in physics at Missouri-St. Louis since 2004 and has been involved in research into the role of synchronization in brain activity in patients with traumatic brain injuries.

She was visiting friends in Voronezh after attending a conference at the Max Planck Institute for Complex Systems in Dresden, Germany, according to Sonya Bahar, director of the Center for Neurodynamics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Contreras' thesis adviser.

U.S. Congressman Todd Akin, a Missouri Republican, has written to Russia's ambassador to the U.S., Yuri Ushakov, in support of Contreras.

Much of the material Andreyeshev is presenting in her defense consists of e-mails, faxes and other messages from friends, colleagues and other supporters vouching for her character, he said.

"She is not a criminal," he said.