US Army Soldier Handed Stiff Prison Sentence By Russian Court For Theft

Another American citizen in Russian custody has been handed a stiff prison sentence by a Russian court, but this time Kremlin authorities say it has nothing to do with espionage and that it's not a political matter.

On Wednesday a court in the far eastern city of Vladivostok sentenced active duty Army soldier, 34-year old Staff Sgt. Gordon Black, to nearly four years in prison on a conviction for theft. He had pled guilty to stealing, and there are reports he had also been charged with making threats of murder.

Gordon Black in court. AFP/Getty Images

He had been arrested in Vladivostok on May 2, after which he's been in pretrial detention, for allegedly stealing 10,000 rubles (or roughly $112) from his Russian girlfriend. He also stood accused of assaulting the woman, but did not admit guilt to that or the death threats.

The whole story is bizarre especially given that the personal travel of active duty military personnel is typically highly controlled or monitored by their bases and command. So how did a US Army Staff Sgt. end up going to Russia?

Black had been stationed at Camp Humphreys in South Korea, and the Department of Defense now says he took an unauthorized trip to Russia after he was formally processed out of Camp Humphreys to be transferred to a base in Texas. What's more is that he may have gone through China while en route to Russia, Reuters says.

He had first met the Russian girlfriend, identified in media reports as Aleksandra Vashchuk, in South Korea and subsequently traveled to see her. Black's family has claimed that he was "set up" by the Russian girl. CNN summarizes of some of the details:

Speaking to the Pervomaisky District Court on Monday, Black said he took the money from the woman’s purse, but the next day transferred $125 to her. He said he spent the money on food and three nights in a hotel, according to RIA.

He also said the woman was to collect a deposit of 10,000 rubles from the landlord after the end of the lease of the apartment for which he was paying, RIA said.

Meanwhile two other Americans with more serious cases - and who have been declared by the US as "wrongfully detained" - are still in Russian prisons: former Marine Paul Whelan and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich. Their detentions stem from alleged espionage.

Another American, school teacher Marc Fogel, has served nearly three years in Russian prison on a drug-related conviction; however, the US government has not declared him wrongfully detained, which has outraged his family which is now suing the federal government. 

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