UPDATE: Olga Zelenina was released from jail on Sept. 25. The investigation into whether she aided drug traffickers continues, says her lawyer Natalia Andreeva.
A 55-year-old Russian chemist remains in jail today after an appearance in a Moscow court, where she faces charges of aiding drug traffickers—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 on Aug. 15 on the basis of expert opinion she provided a Russian court about the amount of opiates found in food-grade poppy seeds.
She is a “victim of vested interests,” notes a petition on her behalf, which went online on Sept. 19 and has since been signed by more than 350 scientists, says Andrey Tsaturyan, a biophysicist at Moscow State University who helped draft the petition.
“It’s dangerous for the whole scientific community if somebody can be sent to jail for his or her scientific opinion,” Tsaturyan tells C&EN. “It’s a terrible case.”
In 2011, Zelenina was asked to provide expert opinion on the amount of opiates that could be extracted from food-grade poppy seeds, says her lawyer, Natalia Andreeva. She performed the analysis at the request of the defense team of a Russian businessman who had imported poppy seeds from Spain and 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/mass spectrometry, Zelenina measured trace amounts of codeine and morphine inherent in the imported poppy products. She noted in her report that neither of these narcotics had been added deliberately.
Zelenina concluded that naturally occurring trace amounts of these narcotics in poppy seeds 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.
The Moscow city court today declined to determine whether Zelenina would remain in jail until the case against her went to trial, Tsaturyan says. Instead, it passed the case to a district court, which is expected to make a decision this week, he adds.
Zelenina suffers from a heart condition, and being in jail is detrimental to her health, Andreeva says. Zelenina shares a jail cell with Pussy Riot frontwoman Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who is in jail for staging an anti-Putin concert in a Moscow cathedral in February.
About 100 people, including members of the media and scientists who support Zelenina, were at the court today, Tsaturyan says.