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Jailed in Russia for selling poppy-seed buns

Claire Bigg

In 2012, four members of a family in the central Russian city of Voronezh found themselves in hot water for selling homemade poppy-seed buns, a traditional pastry in Russia.

After seizing bags of poppy seeds from their family-run cafe, authorities took the Polukhins to court for alleged trafficking in opium -- a charge the entrepreneurs have vehemently rejected, denouncing what they say is a ruthless racketeering scheme by drug-control officials.

On July 7, the Polukhins lost their high-profile, three-year legal battle -- with devastating consequences.

A court in Voronezh found Aleksandr Polukhin, a retired army colonel, guilty of large-scale drug trafficking and sentenced him to eight years and four months in a high-security prison for hardened criminals.

His wife, pensioner Maria Polukhina, their daughter, 30-year-old Yevgenia Polukhina, and Maria’s sister, Nina Chursina,  each received eight-and-a-half-year prison terms.

The stiff sentences, which exceeded even what prosecutors had requested, sparked dismay in Russia and shed light on the official arbitrariness which government critics say destroys the lives of ordinary people.

"There is no proof whatsoever of my and my family’s involvement in any crime!" Polukhin cried as the judge delivered her verdict. "This prosecution is the result of my human rights activities!"

Polukhin, who has been in pre-trial detention since April 2014, is reportedly a member of the Committee for Civil Rights, a Russian interregional charity and rights group.
But rights groups believe there might be another reason for his woes.

Polukhin says drug-control officials first came to his café in 2009 and asked him to pay 50, 000 rubles per month in protection money. The raid on the café and his family’s subsequent prosecution, he claims, are retaliation for his refusal to pay the bribes.

The Polukhins also have serious complaints about the trial.

They insist that prosecutors never actually presented any evidence that the seized poppy seeds contained opium and accuse the judge who oversaw the case, Tatyana Lebedeva, of severe bias against their family.

Lebedeva reportedly refused to take into consideration a polygraph test successfully passed by Polukhin. According to the transcript of a hearing provided by the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, she also warned Polukhin ahead of the verdict that he would "sit [in prison] for a long time."

"I am in court on a regular basis, " Novaya Gazeta’s legal reporter Vera Chelishcheva, who attended some of the hearings,  wrote in May. "But this is the first time I hear a judge tell the defendants before the verdict, in passing, that they will definitely go to prison."

Chelishcheva said she had taped the comment and was ready to make the recording available upon request.

The case also underscores Russia’s contradictory laws on poppy seeds.

Poppy seeds are legal in Russia and are a key ingredient in local pastries. At the same time, Russian food regulations prohibit the slightest trace of opium in the seeds despite the fact that current technology cannot entirely rid them of the substance.

As a result, the infinitesimal traces of opium contained in poppy seeds virtually expose grocers and bakers across Russia to prosecution for drug trafficking -- a boon for corrupt officials.

"All this for simple poppy-seed buns sold in a café, " wrote the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda on July 7. "And, of course, for the refusal to give money to the Federal Service for Drug Control."

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