Russian prosecutors have asked a Moscow court to convict a Ukrainian journalist of espionage and jail him for 14 years, his lawyer said Monday, in a move condemned by Kiev.
Journalist Roman Sushchenko, who has worked for Ukrainian state news agency Ukrinform for over a decade, was detained in Moscow in 2016. Russia's FSB security agency accused him of serving in Ukrainian military intelligence and gathering state secrets.
The case comes amid an uptick in violence in recent weeks in the conflict between Ukrainian troops and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine that broke out following Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and has so far killed more than 10,000 people
Pro-Western Kiev reacted angrily to the move by the prosecution, with foreign ministry spokeswoman Maryana Betsa writing on Facebook: "Once more we stress the politically motivated nature of the case, we demand the release of the journalist Sushchenko, a hostage of Russian aggression."
Lawyer Mark Feigin, who is defending Sushchenko, told AFP that "the prosecution requested 14 years for Sushchenko," while the maximum sentence prosecutors could have sought is 20 years.
Judges do not have to follow prosecutors' guidance on sentencing but rarely impose higher sentences than requested.
Sushchenko's trial at Moscow City Court has been closed to the public and press. His sentencing has been announced for June 4.
Sushchenko was working as Ukrinform's Paris correspondent at the time of his arrest and the agency said that he was detained while visiting Moscow on holiday.
He has denied any guilt and said in his final speech in court that he considers he was framed by the Russian security service, Feigin told Interfax news agency.
Feigin suggested to AFP that prosecutors had asked for a less than maximum jail term for Sushchenko to avoid more unwelcome publicity as another prominent Ukrainian prisoner, documentary director Oleg Sentsov, is currently on hunger strike calling for the release of Ukrainians he sees as political prisoners.
"I think this shows they took into account the specific context of Sentsov's hunger strike," Feigin said.
Sentsov, jailed for 20 years in 2015 on terrorism charges, has gone on hunger strike in his penal colony in far northern Russia demanding the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia.
He began to refuse food on May 14, with his protest timed ahead of Russia's hosting the World Cup next month.
His lawyer Dmitry Dinze told AFP that Sentsov believes there are 64 other Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia.
Feigin suggested Moscow and Kiev could be planning a prisoner exchange since a journalist working for Russian state news agency RIA Novosti is now in detention in Ukraine awaiting trial on treason charges. The journalist, Kyrylo Vyshynsky, has dual Russian and Ukrainian citizenship.