WASHINGTON – Efforts to help free an American pastor sentenced to more than three years in prison by a Russian court for smuggling in a box of hunting ammo attracted renewed attention Tuesday as Washington officials added their diplomatic heft to the cause.
The battle had been playing largely outside of the spotlight as negotiators try to get Pastor Phillip Miles, of Conway, S.C., released for time served following three months in jail for bringing ammunition into the country back in late January.
The diplomatic effort is now being waged on many fronts. FOX News has learned that South Carolina's two senators have been quietly working with the State Department, the Russian Embassy and other Russian officials to secure Miles' release.
One senior Senate GOP aide added that the diplomatic endeavor "extends to the highest levels of the State Department, all the way to the top," suggesting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in on the details.
As reported by FOXNews.com on Monday, Miles began his journey in January by bringing a gift to a friend, Eduard Grabovenko, a Russian minister and an avid hunter. Miles brought along a box of .300-caliber rounds for a new Winchester rifle, ammunition that is very expensive in the former Soviet Union.
According to his attorney and family spokesman, Dominic Starr, the pastor, who leads an annual missionary trip to Russia to speak at churches and visit church-backed orphanages and rehab facilities, declared the munitions to U.S. authorities when he left Myrtle Beach International Airport. He was cleared for the flight.
However, at the Moscow airport, where Starr says no signage in English exists to indicate that a separate declaration must be made to customs officials, an airport scanner picked up on the box.
According to Starr, who has been a member of the pastor's church for eight years, Miles explained why he was carrying the offending cargo, and officials appeared to understand, though they confiscated the gift, telling Miles he had broken the law.
The officials then stamped his passport and visa and sent him on his way. But upon returning to the airport on Feb. 3, Russian customs officials detained Miles, who has remained imprisoned since.
"We don't know why, and we may never know why" he was detained, Starr told FOX News.
Those who have followed the case say the expectation was that Miles would be found guilty of a misdemeanor illegal possession charge rather than the felony smuggling charge, which usually carries a penalty of three to sevens years.
Sen Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., himself a military lawyer, said he has been working very closely with Russian Duma ministers he knows well through years of meetings together at an annual defense industry conference in Munich, Germany. Amb. Nick Burns, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, the State Department's third highest-ranking official, has also been intimately involved in working with his Russian counterparts, Graham said.
Starr said he did not know of Rice's involvement, but Burns has remained in touch with Miles' wife, Lynn.
According to Graham, Burns is scheduled to meet with Miles Wednesday, and U.S. embassy officials in Moscow have met with the pastor daily. Graham has been in contact with Miles' family, as well, and said the reverend has had "some health problems," adding to concerns about his being held much longer.
The controversy has been simmering beneath the surface,, according to two congressional sources, largely because U.S. officials have not wanted to "back Russia into a corner."
In fact, a spokesman for South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, would only confirm that the Republican senator's office "has been active and working with the State Department and the Russian Embassy."
Graham said of the low-key effort: "It's clear what he did was wrong. We're trying to do this as quietly as we can. This is a time to ask for forgiveness, not to make demands. I personally think the sentence is out of line, but at the end of the day, the law was violated and there's some procedures available in the Russian judicial system and political system that can provide some relief."
Graham has a telephone call scheduled for Wednesday morning to speak to Russia's Deputy Prime Minister, Sergei Ivanov, a former defense minister whom Graham calls "a friend, though we don't agree on a lot of things." They, too, met at the Munich conference.
"I'm cautiously optimistic we'll resolve this within the next month," he said.
Starr is working closely with Miles' attorney in Russia, Vladimir Ryakhovsky, and the two will craft an appeal as soon as they receive the court transcript of the Monday trial, something Starr expects "within a couple days."
The appeals process happens quickly in Russia, according to Starr. Oral arguments are scheduled within 30 days of a written appeal being received; the written appeal must be received within 10 days of the ruling being issued in writing. According to Russian court procedure, the judge rules from the bench; a court reporter takes down the ruling and transcribes it into writing. This is the official document on which the appeal is based and where the judge sets out her reasoning for the ruling).
Starr said the appeal will focus on Miles' intent, as he believes the judge did not consider this in Monday's trial. The attorney said the judge noted that Miles had traveled to Russia before and he should have known the customs laws, but Starr noted that the judge stated in her ruling that the pastor has a clean record, was only bringing a gift and that he is well-regarded in the U.S..
Numerous notorized letters were sent on Miles' behalf from the U.S., including the chief prosecutor in South Carolina.
"Ignorance of the law is no defense," Graham conceded, but Starr noted that Miles wasn't smuggling anything.
One other item on which the appeal will focus is the fact that customs officials let Miles into the country and chose to detain him only when he was leaving. "The whole issue under their smuggling law is that you arrest the person on entry into the country.
Meanwhile, Starr said Miles' family and church community is doing well, sustaining themselves on "a lot of prayer."
"His wife's spirits are up. She's confident it's going to work out in the end. It's all going to work out for something good," he said.