ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (Reuters) - A Russian court sentenced Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov on Tuesday to 20 years in a high-security penal colony for “terrorist attacks” in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula annexed by Moscow from Ukraine in April 2014.
The Crimea-born Sentsov pleaded not guilty and denounced the trial as politically driven, amid high tension between Russia and the West over Moscow’s role in the crisis in Ukraine.
The European Union said the case was “in breach of international law and elementary standards of justice”. The U.S. State Department said it was a “clear miscarriage of justice”.
Russian state prosecutors charged Sentsov with organizing a “terrorist group” in Crimea in order to wrest the peninsula back from Moscow’s control.
The military court in Russia’s south-western city of Rostov-on-Don also sentenced a second defendant, Crimea activist Alexander Kolchenko, to 10 years in prison. Prosecutors had sought sentences of 23 years for Sentsov and 12 for Kolchenko.
Russia annexed Crimea after protests in Kiev toppled Ukraine’s Kremlin-allied president, Viktor Yanukovich. A Russian-backed separatist revolt then erupted in eastern Ukraine in which more than 6,500 people have been killed to date.
The West has imposed sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine. Moscow denies Western accusations that it has helped the separatist militias by sending serving troops and arms.
TV footage showed the two men locked in a courtroom cage, laughing scornfully as their sentences were pronounced. They put their arms round each other’s shoulder and broke into an impromptu rendering of the Ukrainian national anthem.
Sentsov then shouted “Glory to Ukraine!” His defense lawyer, Svetlana Sidorkina, said they would appeal against the ruling to Russia’s Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights.
Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, in a message on his Facebook page, urged the defendants to remain defiant, adding: “There will come a time when those who organized this so-called trial will themselves sit on the bench of the accused.”
Russian investigators say Sentsov and Kolchenko set fire to two offices in Crimea between April and May 2014, including one of Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, and were plotting to blow up a monument to Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin.
Sentsov did not shy away from politics during his trial, saying he believed Russians would reject their rulers just as Ukrainians rose up against the “criminal regime” of Yanukovich.
Amnesty International condemned what it called a “show trial”, saying it had been rife with irregularities.
In a similar case, Ukrainian military pilot Nadezhda Savchenko is expected to go on trial soon in Russia. She was captured while fighting the rebels in east Ukraine in 2014 and faces up to 25 years in jail if convicted in the killing of two Russian journalists in the conflict zone.
Rights groups and Kiev say she is a political prisoner and Western leaders have repeatedly urged Russia to release her.
Some commentators in Kiev and Moscow say the men sentenced on Tuesday as well as Savchenko, who is widely expected to be convicted even though she denies guilt, could eventually be freed or swapped for Russian troops held in Ukraine.
On Monday Poroshenko held talks in Berlin with German and French leaders about the conflict in east Ukraine, where a shaky ceasefire has come under increased strain in recent weeks amid intensified shelling.
Reporting by Sergei Pivovarov in Rostov-on-Don, Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow, Richard Balmforth and Natalia Zinets in Kiev, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska