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Chemist Jailed In Russia For Giving Expert Opinion In Court

September 25, 2012

As a result of completing her job as a hired expert witness regarding the biology of hemp and poppy, Russian chemist Olga Nikolaevna Zelenina now sits imprisoned in a Moscow detention center. Zelenina has the reputation of a sought after expert witness in cases involving narcotics produced from hemp and poppy plants.
One opinion changed everything for Zelenina. She was hired by defense attorneys to provide an expert opinion regarding the amount of opiates that could potentially be extracted from a 42 metric ton shipment of poppy seeds imported to Spain in 2010.


Cultivation of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) has been banned in Russia since 1997. But the import of poppy seeds for use in foods, such as cakes and bread, is legal — as long as they are 100% free of narcotic opium alkaloids such as morphine and codeine. Poppy seeds do not contain these alkaloids, but other parts of the plant that do, such as poppy straw, can become mixed into shipments as a result of poor harvesting practices.

Zelenina’s Opinion:

Zelenina stated that although it is impossible to fully eliminate all impurities of narcotics, the shipment did not contain obvious amounts of intentionally placed alkaloid compounds. Her expert opinion favored the defense.

“This opinion apparently failed to satisfy the prosecutors,” says Irina Levontina, a linguist at the Russian Language Institute in Moscow, who is frequently heard as an expert in libel and drug lawsuits. “It has become quite common for Russian prosecutors to accuse independent experts if they don’t like their opinions. It can be downright dangerous for experts to appear in court.”

In a terrifying turn, Zelenina was arrested in her home by Russian Federal Drug Control Service (FDCS) officials, and charged with aiding and abetting attempted drug trafficking by an organized group.

“Olga Zelenina has been asked for her honest scientific expert opinion and is now kept in jail for no reason other than having provided just that,” says Mikhail Gelfand, a biologist at the Institute for Information Transmission Problems in Moscow. “I have read her report, and to me it looks absolutely reasonable. There is no justification at all to keep her in detention.”

This unusual story prompts us to acknowledge the weight of an expert witness opinion. An expert witness opinion is characterized as an unbiased evaluation, and by that nature would give no prompt to arrest Zelenina given the scientific evidence she provided in her report.

“Olga has done nothing else than her duty as a scientist and as a citizen,” adds Andreeva. “Surely you cannot put a scientist in jail just because you don’t like her opinion?”

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