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Journalism Watchdogs Condemn Russia's Imprisonment Of Ukrainian Reporter

Ukrainian journalist Roman Sushchenko stands inside a defendant's glass cage at the court hearing on June 4.
Ukrainian journalist Roman Sushchenko stands inside a defendant's glass cage at the court hearing on June 4.

Kyiv and journalism watchdogs have strongly condemned the sentence given to Ukrainian journalist Roman Sushchenko by a Russian court after it convicted him of spying.

The Moscow City Court found Sushchenko guilty of espionage and sentenced him to 12 years in a strict-regime prison in a June 4 decision that Sushchenko's lawyer, Mark Feigin, said was fabricated for political reasons and would be appealed.

Harlem Desir, a media-freedom representative at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said he deplored the sentence and called on Russia to let Sushchenko go.

"Journalism is not a crime," Desir said in a statement.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based journalism watchdog group, also demanded Suschenko's release and said Russian authorities had failed to back up their allegations with "a shred of evidence."

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko maintained the court convicted Sushchenko on trumped-up charges.

"The unprecedented cynicism of the Russian court...proves that the Kremlin regime will stop at nothing in its attempts to break Ukrainians' spirit," Poroshenko wrote on social media.

The verdict and sentence are likely to add to international scrutiny of Russia ahead of the 2018 soccer World Cup, which it is hosting from June 14 to July 15.

Kyiv, human rights activists, and Western governments say Russia has jailed several Ukrainians on trumped-up, politically motivated charges since Moscow seized the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and threw its support behind armed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Sushchenko, a Paris-based correspondent for the Ukrinform news agency, was detained during a visit to Moscow in 2016 on suspicion of collecting classified information.

The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has claimed that Sushchenko works for the Ukrainain Defense Ministry and that he gathered information about the Russian military and National Guard.

Sushchenko pleaded not guilty at the start of his trial in March. Prosecutors had urged the court to sentence him to 14 years in prison.

The verdict in Sushchenko's trial came amid heightened attention to the plight of Ukrainians held in Russian prisons, particularly filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, as Russia prepares to host the World Cup.

Sentsov is a Crimea native who is serving a 20-year prison term in Russia after being convicted on terrorism charges that he and human rights groups say were politically motivated. He started a hunger strike on May 14, demanding the release of 64 Ukrainian citizens he considers political prisoners.

Critics accuse Russian authorities of fabricating the charges against Sentsov as a reprisal for his opposition to Moscow's takeover of the Black Sea peninsula.

Russia seized Crimea in March 2014 after sending in troops and staging a referendum deemed illegitimate by at least 100 countries in the United Nations.

On June 4, dozens of artists and journalists, including Stephen Sondhein, Margaret Atwood, and Patrick Stewart, called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to free Sentsov ahead of the World Cup.

Volodymyr Balukh, a pro-Kyiv activist imprisoned by Russian authorities in Crimea in another politically charged case, has been on a hunger strike for nearly two months.

With reporting by Rapsinews, Dozhd, AP, Reuters, and TASS