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US soldier jailed in Russia on theft, threat charges

Jail cells (Dreamstime/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

A court in the Russian Far East has convicted and sentenced a U.S. Army sergeant who reportedly broke military rules to travel to Russia with his Russian girlfriend in May to three years and nine months in prison for allegedly attacking and threatening her amid accusations Moscow is using trumped-up charges to detain foreigners to use as currency in prisoner exchanges.

The soldier, 32-year-old Gordon Black, had pleaded not guilty in the Pervomaisky district court in Vladivostok to the charges but acknowledged hitting the woman, Aleksandra Vashchuk, after he said she drunkenly attacked him and tried to prevent him from leaving the apartment they were sharing.

Russian prosecutors had requested a nearly five-year sentence for Black.

He was also ordered to pay Vashchuk 10,000 rubles ($115) in a related civil case.

Black’s lawyer said his client maintains his innocence and will appeal the verdict.

U.S. authorities have said Black traveled to Russia via China from South Korea — where he had been assigned before heading back home to Texas — without informing his superiors.

Around the time of Black’s arrest in early May, Russian authorities reported detaining another U.S. citizen, identified as William Russell Nycum, on what they called “petty hooliganism” and alcohol charges in a separate case.

The detentions have fueled suspicions that Russian authorities are targeting Americans for use in possible prisoner swaps as Moscow and Washington over the war in Ukraine and other international security issues.

Russia has other U.S. citizens that Washington insists are being held unfairly or on dubious grounds in its jails, including RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, and ex-Marine Paul Whelan.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry insists the cases involving Black and Nycum are not political.

A State Department advisory from September urges Americans to avoid travel to Russia due to “the singling out of U.S. citizens for detention by Russian government security officials.”

The State Department said in December that Moscow rejected a significant offer it made to secure the release of Gershkovich and Paul Whelan, another American imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges.

Russian officials have kept mum for the most part about any talks to win the release of the Americans. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has repeatedly said that while “certain contacts” on swaps continue, “they must be carried out in absolute silence.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in an interview with the state news agency TASS on June 19 that Moscow was waiting for Washington to respond to its proposals on possible prisoner swaps.

“I am not authorized to go into details, but let’s put it this way: according to diplomatic protocols, there is a notion of ‘the ball being in somebody’s court.’ In this situation, the ball is on the U.S.’s side; we are expecting a response from them to those ideas that were conveyed to them,” Ryabov said.

Russia is believed to be seeking the release of Vadim Krasikov, who was given a life sentence in Germany in 2021 for the killing of Zelimkhan “Tornike” Khangoshvili, a Georgian citizen of Chechen descent who had fought Russian troops in Chechnya and later claimed asylum in Germany.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, asked in February about releasing Gershkovich, appeared to refer to Krasikov by pointing to a man imprisoned by a U.S. ally for “liquidating a bandit” who had allegedly killed Russian soldiers during separatist fighting in Chechnya.