WASHINGTON – Sen. Lindsey Graham spoke with a Russian official and the U.S. ambassador to Russia on Wednesday about how to negotiate the release of a South Carolina pastor imprisoned in Russia for bringing bullets for a hunting gun to a fellow clergyman.
Graham told FOX News that Amb. William Burns recommended that Graham send a letter, along with an appeal by Rev. Phillip Miles' legal team, requesting clemency. Graham said he will send a letter via the ambassador soon, who will then get it to the appropriate judicial authorities in Russia.
He said he also received "counseling and advice" from Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov's chief of staff, who agreed that it would be helpful to send the clemency letter. Graham plans to talk to Ivanov as well.
Miles was sentenced Monday to three years in prison for smuggling the case of ammunition into the country in January. His attorney and family spokesman, Dominic Starr, said the gift of a box of a box of .300-caliber rounds for a new Winchester rifle, ammunition that is very expensive in the former Soviet Union, was confiscated when Miles entered the country. But the pastor was permitted to go on his way. Only after he returned to the airport to leave the country on Feb. 3 was Miles arrested and imprisoned.
According to Graham, a U.S. Air Force JAG officer, three possible routes can be pursued to get Miles released. The first, being more immediate, is the legal appeal. This is where Miles' legal team is now, along with Graham and others. One of the points of appeal, Starr said, is that Miles never actually smuggled anything into the country because the bullets were confiscated at his point of entry. They are also asking for clemency based on intent.
Starr said the appeals process happens quickly in Russia. 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.
The second stage, is for the Russian Duma, or Parliament, to grant amnesty. Graham said this path is "much more difficult," although he has had numerous conversations with members of the Duma who he's gotten to know over the years from attending an annual defense industry conference in Munich.
Lastly, those fighting for Miles' release, which includes U.S. Amb. Nick Burns, the former No. 3 official in the State Dapartment who was scheduled to visit Miles Wednesday, could request that Russian President Vladimir Putin grant a pardon. Graham said this works much the same way as in the United States.
The clemency request Graham will soon send will include an admission of a mistake by the pastor in entering the country with illegal ammunition, a reminder of Miles' health problems and an apology for his crime, according to the senator.
For now, those fighting for the pastor's release are content to keep this a fairly low-profile affair, but Graham said a point may come when much higher diplomatic avenues may be sought for their influence.