Russian court sentences US soldier to nearly 4 years on theft charges

MOSCOW (AP) — A court in Russia’s far eastern city of Vladivostok on Wednesday sentenced an American soldier arrested earlier this year to three years and nine months in prison on charges of stealing and threats of murder, Russian news reports said.

Staff Sgt. Gordon Black, 34, flew to Vladivostok, a Pacific port city, to see his girlfriend and was arrested after she accused him of stealing from her, according to U.S. officials and Russian authorities.

Russian state news agencies Tass and RIA Novosti reported from the courtroom in the Pervomaisky District Court in Vladivostok that the judge also ordered Black to pay 10,000 rubles ($115) in damages. Prosecutors had asked for Black to be sentenced to four years and eight months in prison.

Black’s sentencing further complicates U.S. relations with Russia, which have grown increasingly tense as the fighting in Ukraine continues.

Russia is holding a number of Americans in its jails, including corporate security executive Paul Whelan and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich. The U.S. government has designated both men as wrongfully detained and has been trying to negotiate for their release.

Others detained include Travis Leake, a musician who had been living in Russia for years and was arrested last year on drug-related charges; Marc Fogel, a teacher in Moscow who was sentenced to 14 years in prison, also on drug charges; and dual nationals Alsu Kurmasheva and Ksenia Khavana.

The U.S. State Department strongly advises American citizens not to go to Russia.

Under Pentagon policy, service members must get clearance for any international travel from a security manager or commander.

The U.S. Army said last month that Black hadn’t sought clearance for the international travel and it wasn’t authorized by the Defense Department. Given the hostilities in Ukraine and threats to the U.S. and its military, it is extremely unlikely he would have been granted approval.

Black was on leave and in the process of returning to his home base at Fort Cavazos, Texas, from South Korea, where he had been stationed at Camp Humphreys with the Eighth Army.

Cynthia Smith, an Army spokesperson, said Black signed out for his move back home and, “instead of returning to the continental United States, Black flew from Incheon, Republic of Korea, through China to Vladivostok, Russia, for personal reasons.”

Black’s girlfriend, Alexandra Vashchuk, told reporters earlier this month that “it was a simple domestic dispute,” during which Black “became aggressive and attacked” her. “He then stole money from my wallet and I didn’t give him permission to do it,” Vashchuk said.

U.S. officials have said that Black, who is married, met his girlfriend in South Korea.

According to U.S. officials, the Russian woman had lived in South Korea, and last fall she and Black got into some type of domestic dispute or altercation. After that, she left South Korea. It isn’t clear if she was forced to leave or what, if any, role South Korean authorities had in the matter.

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