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Russian Court Sentences Ukrainian Journalist to 12 Years on Espionage

FILE - An activist rallies against the detention by Russian authorities of Ukrainian journalist Roman Sushchenko on charges of spying for Ukraine, during a demonstration near the Russian embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, Oct. 6, 2016.

A Russian court has sentenced Ukrainian journalist Roman Sushchenko to 12 years in prison after convicting him of spying in a case that Kyiv and rights activists say is politically motivated.

At a June 4 hearing, the Moscow City Court found Sushchenko guilty of espionage and sentenced him to 12 years in a strict-regime prison.

The verdict and sentence are likely to add to international scrutiny on Russia ahead of the 2018 soccer World Cup, which it is hosting from June 14 to July 15. A lawyer for Sushchenko, Mark Feigin, said he would appeal the verdict.

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 in 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.

Ukraine has called repeatedly for the release of Sushchenko and other Ukrainians held in Russia. Last week, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maryana Betsa said the journalist was a "hostage to Russian aggression."

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

Sentsov is a Crimea native 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.

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, and TASS