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Policy

Russian Chemist Released From Jail

Criminal Justice: Supporters say Olga Zelenina was unjustly behind bars for giving expert scientific opinion

by Sarah Everts
September 27, 2012 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 90, ISSUE 40

Zelenina
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Credit: Courtesy of Natalia Andreeva
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Credit: Courtesy of Natalia Andreeva

A Russian analytical chemist was released from jail on Sept. 25 after spending nearly six weeks behind bars on charges that she was aiding drug trafficking—charges that her supporters call misguided and an abuse of power.

Olga Nikolaevna Zelenina, a research scientist at Russia’s Penza Agricultural Research Institute, was arrested at her home on Aug. 15 on the basis of an expert opinion she provided a Russian court about the amount of opiates found in poppy seeds.

Although Zelenina, 55, is no longer behind bars, she still faces charges of aiding drug trafficking. However, she can wait out the multimonth investigation at her home in Penza, about 400 miles southeast of Moscow.

Zelenina is a “victim of vested interests,” notes a petition on her behalf. The petition went online on Sept. 19 and was signed by more than 350 scientists within a few days, says Andrey K. Tsaturyan, a biophysicist at Moscow State University who helped draft the document.

“It’s dangerous for the whole scientific community if somebody can be sent to jail for his or her scientific opinion,” Tsaturyan says. “It’s a terrible case.”

In 2011, the defense team of a Russian businessman accused of drug trafficking asked Zelenina to provide expert opinion on the amount of opiates that could be extracted from food-grade poppy seeds, says Zelenina’s lawyer, Natalia Andreeva. The businessman, who had imported such poppy seeds from Spain, was being investigated by Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service.

Under Russian law, poppy seeds for use in food cannot contain any narcotic compounds whatsoever, Andreeva says.

Using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, Zelenina measured trace amounts of opium alkaloids inherent in the imported poppy products. She noted in her report the narcotics had not been added deliberately.

Zelenina concluded that naturally occurring trace amounts of these narcotics in poppy seeds and associated plant matter make it impossible to obey the Russian law, Andreeva tells C&EN. “Nobody can fulfill the law. You can’t turn down the laws of chemistry,” Andreeva says.

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