An American pastor who was sentenced to more than three years in Russian prison on Monday for smuggling hunting ammunition into Russia is confident that "what’s happening to him is part of God’s plan," his lawyer told FOXNews.com.
Phillip Miles, pastor of the Christ Community Church in Conway, S.C., was arrested on February 3, several days after customs agents at a Moscow airport found a box of 20 rifle shells in his luggage.
A Russian court sentenced him to serve three years in prison out of a possible seven for the smuggling charge, and an additional two months for trafficking, which carried a maximum penalty of four years, according to a State Department official.
“We are disappointed in today’s verdict and concerned that Mr. Miles will have to spend additional time incarcerated in Russia,” said the official. “We feel that three years and two months is harsh for what Mr. Miles admitted was an error.”
Miles has said he brought the .300 caliber cartridges for a friend who had recently bought a Winchester rifle. He said he did not know bringing such ammunition into Russia was illegal.
Miles has been imprisoned since his arrest and does not speak Russian — “just a few words,” according to his attorney, Dominic Starr. “I’m sure he felt isolated,” Starr told FOXNews.com.
During his incarceration, Miles has been kept in a special prison wing designated for foreign nationals, according to Starr. “As far as we have heard they’ve all gotten along very well and have developed a camaraderie,” he said.
Starr told FOXNews.com that Miles has been healthy and safe during his imprisonment. “He’s not felt threatened in any way,” he said.
U.S. embassy officials in Moscow have visited Miles regularly during his confinement, and have been relaying messages and letters from home to the imprisoned pastor. A consular officer was present at Miles’ trial and sentencing, the State Department official said.
Miles appeared in a gray jacket and clerical collar on the day of his sentencing.
“I’m very disappointed. It’s a strange sentence for one box of hunting bullets,” he said as court bailiffs led him in handcuffs from the courtroom cage, where defendants in Russian criminal courts are held during trial.
“I am deeply disappointed in the outcome of the ruling today, and I do trust that the appeals court will address the evidence and reverse the verdict,” said Starr.
Vladimir Ryakhovsky, a lawyer representing Miles in Moscow, said the sentence was surprisingly severe.
“I hoped he would only be found guilty of the illegal possession of ammunition,” said Ryakhovsky. He said the conviction for smuggling was unfounded, as his client had acted without any intent to break the law.
Miles will remain in a Moscow jail until the appeal, which is expected within 10 days, according to his lawyers.
Despite the sentence, Starr said that Miles has kept his faith and confidence throughout the process. “Pastor Miles has a very strong faith in God and I’m sure that he believes that what’s happening to him is part of God’s plan for him, and that he’ll accept whatever will happen to him,” he said.
Back home in South Carolina, that’s also been the case. Attendance at Miles' church has been very strong in his absence, according to Starr.
“It’s been really a sort of rallying point for the church to step up while he’s away,” he said. “It’s really caused a surge in attendance, caused an overall feeling of unity among the members.”
Starr told FOXNews.com that the Miles family was holding up well through the trial. “His wife and four children have done extremely well, although they’d all very much like to have him returned.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.