Shortly before the announcement of the coronavirus pandemic, Russian zoologist Alexander Ignatenko went on vacation to Sri Lanka and ended up in a local prison due to dead bugs picked up on the road. At the time of the epidemic, he was released on bail, and Alexander was able to get in touch with his family and told his story on social networks. According to Ignatenko, he faces 40 years in prison or a fine of several million rubles. Lenta.ru tried to figure out the situation.
In June, Rostovites Alexander Ignatenko will turn 28 years old. He has been enthralled since childhood.
“He needed to be born at the beginning of the 20th century, when there was a boom in naturalistic discoveries,” his wife Elena Bondarenko told Lente.ru. – He studied at the biological faculty of SFU [Южный федеральный университет, Ростов-на-Дону], then there in graduate school. He worked as a teacher at the university, then as a research assistant. Now he is the head of the department of small mammals in the zoo of our city. ”
Exotarium with rare insects also enters this department of the Rostov zoo. According to the wife, Alexander is known as a kind, gentle and positive person who loves to travel very much. “Three times I was in India, twice I went with him, and there were Tunisia, Uganda,” Elena lists. Ignatenko also visited Siberia, rafting along the rivers.
Alexander flew to Sri Lanka in February, even before the announcement of the coronavirus pandemic. Two friends went with him – it was a vacation, not a business trip. The zoologist was supposed to return on March 1, but this did not happen. Then Ignatenko described what happened on his Facebook page:
“I was detained in a national park during the inspection due to the fact that I had several bugs that I found shot down the day before and simply forgot to put it out of my pocket”
He explained that he had long been in the habit of collecting dead insects – for example, in lampshades – to examine, determine their appearance, features and so on.
Ignatenko said that the employees of the national park in Sri Lanka were very unfriendly towards him and his companions: they immediately took away documents, telephones and cameras from tourists. Calling relatives or the embassy was not allowed.
“Our arguments that these animals were found outside the park, they did not listen,” wrote Alexander. “The next day, other animals were found in the hotel room, which I collected along the roads and in the hotel’s garden.”
The judge sent Ignatenko and his companions to prison during the investigation. The meeting at which such a decision was made did not last longer than five minutes, Alexander recalls.
“We were never asked about anything, we didn’t sign it anywhere, except for the wedding ring, which was taken into custody during registration in the prison,” said Alexander Ignatenko to “Lente.ru”. “Even the lawyer did not ask about the details of our stay in prison and our arrest.”
According to the zoologist, after the arrest, he found out that in Sri Lanka it is forbidden even to pick up a fallen leaf or bird’s feather from the ground.
The Russian tried in vain to explain to the authorities that he was not going to take the bugs with him. Everything that was picked up, Ignatenko carried to the hotel to take photographs in office (that is, not field) conditions.
“Photographing natural objects is not prohibited by law in any country,” said the zoologist. “We were going to bring back even what was found dead.”
The response of local law enforcement officers to all the explanations during the arrest was only the phrase: “Shut up, baby” (“Shut up, baby”).
“We immediately got the stigma of smugglers, although the animals found here do not represent any commercial value,” the source told Lenta.ru. Evidence in the case was drugs from Ignatov’s medicine cabinet – for example, Coartem, a medicine for malaria, which he had brought from a trip to Africa.
“They consider this a special substance for luring insects, and the rest – substances for keeping animals alive,” the zoologist said. – This is in our accusations: “the use of substances to animals.” It’s impossible to prove that this is absolute nonsense, although there are packages and instructions for all medicines, including in English. ”
Ignatenko said that they and his friends were put in a cell measuring 10 by 15 meters, where there were 86 more prisoners. There was not even a bunk: he had to sleep with a jack on bare concrete.
Fortunately, the Russians did not have problems with their cellmates. “The chief in the cell did not allow himself to be mistreated with us, but the locals got cracked from him,” Alexander explained.
Only on the fifth day of their imprisonment did they persuade the jailers to allow them to write a letter to their relatives to tell about their situation, and send it via the Internet.
Another test, in addition to being cramped and having to sleep on the bare floor, was too spicy prison food. Because of her, Alexander had an ulcer, and he was transferred to a prison hospital. Those who refused spicy food were given bread to the Russians.
The coronavirus epidemic unexpectedly helped their fate, because of which they were temporarily released from prison on bail.
“At first we lived in a guest house where the police settled us,” says Ignatenko. “He had to be paid for, albeit inexpensively.” Recently, we came to the conclusion that we don’t have enough money to live there before the trial. It’s good that there was a host of an empty hotel due to the lack of tourists who agreed to let us in for free. ”
However, on June 15 they may be returned back to prison. If the situation does not change, then, according to Alexander, they can be awarded a fine of three million rubles each, or given 40 years in prison.
“It’s impossible to collect such an amount by the efforts of my family, even if you get into all kinds of loans and sell a mortgage apartment,” Ignatenko wrote in social networks.
“We contacted the embassy from the very beginning – to no avail,” says the zoologist’s wife. – In the last days, letters to the ambassador were written by Sasha’s colleagues. We must make an official request from the Union of Zoos, the director of the Rostov Zoo helps with this. ”
Ignatenko’s lawyer from local residents. According to Elena, he will try to reduce the amount of the fine, or at least divide it into three. But due to strict quarantine in Sri Lanka, the investigation is being delayed.
“For a very long time we could not get indictments,” Bondarenko complains. According to her, those papers that were obtained were not translated either into Russian or even into English.
Alexander and Elena bought an apartment in a mortgage, and now she has to pay the entire loan amount alone. Mother and other relatives are very worried about Sasha, everyone is worried about his health. Last year, a young scientist spent more than a month on sick leave due to a stomach ulcer.
“After prison I eat the most fresh food. It has become better, but pains are periodically visited. Gastroscopy and treatment are needed, ”he says.
It is not yet clear what the reaction of the national and international scientific community to what will be, given that the studies that Alexander conducted in Sri Lanka were not official. However, the director of the Rostov Zoo Alexander Zhadobin intends to fight for the release of his employee.
“Even if there were any unlawful actions on his part, I think that it was unintentional,” he told the Rostov edition 161.RU. – We are waiting for the return of Alexander to Rostov-on-Don and are confident that they will help us release him from custody and restore justice. We will do our best for this. ”
In a message that Ignatenko wrote to his boss, he was worried about not having time to go to work, and asked for leave at his own expense.
“Alexander turned to our consulate in Sri Lanka for help and received advice from Oleg Vitalievich Rudnev, deputy consul, so that relatives would find a lawyer on the embassy’s website. He did not receive more help from our embassy, ”the director of the zoo added.
“In Sri Lanka, collecting beetles without the permission of the authorities is prohibited, as in India. This is a known fact. This ban is connected with the fact that there are many rare animals on the island that are on the verge of extinction, ”Indologist Alexei Kupriyanov told Lente.ru.
Scientists, he said, can get legal permission for research from the authorities, but for this you need to pay a certain amount. The expert noted that it is still difficult to judge this particular case, there is too little information. According to the law, Ignatenko must receive the full text of the charge in Russian or at least in English.
We can only say that the incredibly huge 40-year prison sentence threatening him is not at all an ordinary punishment in local proceedings.
“For killing animals in Sri Lanka, you can really get a sentence, but it usually does not exceed five years,” the source of Lenta.ru emphasized.
The ban on illegal collecting in force in Sri Lanka makes no difference between killing and collecting already dead animals. This means that it will be difficult for the zoologist to fully justify himself. The intervention of the Russian embassy, according to Alexei Kupriyanov, will help our compatriot to be released only if it is a matter of a trifle, misunderstanding or a clear violation of the law by law enforcement authorities. However, he has the opportunity to reduce the amount of the fine, proving the impossibility of paying it.
“In the case of a serious, well-reasoned accusation, supported by a court decision, in practice you can only achieve the extradition of a person to serve his sentence at home,” the expert added.
Given the conditions described by Ignatenko in which he and his friends were in a Sri Lankan prison, this option seems to be not the worst.
In 2008, Vladimir Efremenko, entomologist-collector from Krasnoyarsk, and his wife hit to a prison in Madagascar for taking pictures of animals. At the same time, they had all the necessary documents confirming the permission to export butterflies. The translator, whom the local law enforcement officers provided the spouses, turned out to be a drunkard and did worse: instead of paying $ 50 for a photograph, he told the gendarmes that there was no corruption in Russia, so they would not pay. The Russians were then helped by the Russian consul.
In March 2019, in the capital of Sri Lanka, Colombo, the migration police delayed nine Russians. They were placed in a camp for migrants and, according to one of them, were going to accuse of resistance to law enforcement agencies. The detainees turned to the Russian Foreign Ministry for help and a few days later flew to Russia. As it turned out, some of the detainees worked for a company renting surfboards and were accused of illegal business.