By Andrew Osborn
MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian court sentenced a Ukrainian journalist, Roman Sushchenko, to 12 years in a maximum security prison on Monday after convicting him of spying in a case his lawyer and Ukraine said was fabricated for political reasons.
Relations between Moscow and Kiev have been tense since 2014 when a popular uprising drove a pro-Russian president from power. Russia went on to annex Crimea from Ukraine and backed a pro-Russian separatist insurgency in the country’s east.
Russia’s FSB state security service detained Sushchenko, 49, in 2016 after he flew into Moscow from Paris where he worked as a correspondent for Ukrainian state news agency Ukrinform.
The FSB accused Sushchenko of working for Ukrainian military intelligence and of gathering classified information about Russia’s military, charges he denied.
Mark Feygin, a lawyer for Sushchenko, said on Monday that a Moscow court had sentenced his client to 12 years in a maximum security prison after finding him guilty. He said he would appeal.
“We consider Roman Sushchenko innocent, but in such cases only political results are possible,” Feygin told reporters after the verdict.
Feygin himself was stripped of his status as a lawyer during the trial, a move he believes was linked to his work defending Sushchenko.
‘FELL INTO TRAP’
Harlem Desir, media representative of the European security and rights watchdog OSCE, said he deplored Monday’s verdict and called on Russia to release Sushchenko.
“Journalism is not a crime,” Desir said in a statement.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said Russian authorities had failed to back up their allegations with “a shred of evidence.”
“Roman came here on a private visit, but got complacent and fell into a trap set by Russia’s special services,” said Feygin, his lawyer.
He said Sushchenko had only ever sought information for journalistic purposes, but had been set up by someone in the Russian military whom he had known for 25 years.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko condemned the court, saying it had 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.
Feygin, the lawyer, called for Russia to swap his client with Ukraine in exchange for Kirill Vyshinsky, a Russian journalist being held by Kiev.
Ukraine’s SBU state security service detained Vyshinsky, the head of Russia’s state-backed RIA Novosti news agency in Ukraine, last month and accused him of supporting pro-Russian separatists.
Vyshinsky faces up to 15 years in jail if convicted of the charges.
A Ukrainian film director, Oleg Sentsov, could also be part of any prisoner swap. Sentsov is serving 20 years in jail in Russia for planning “terrorist attacks” in Crimea after what Amnesty International called a show trial.
Western journalists have asked President Vladimir Putin to agree to an amnesty for Sentsov or to release him as part of a prisoner exchange in the run-up to the soccer World Cup which starts later this month.
(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth and Andrey Ostroukh in Moscow and by Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets in Kiev; Editing by Richard Balmforth)