Russia jails US soldier Gordon Black as it dangles prisoner swap deal

Sentence expands list of US citizens detained in Russia as Moscow says awaiting response on prisoner swap proposals.

US Army Staff Sergeant Gordon Black talks with his lawyer sitting in a glass cage in a courtroom in Vladivostok, Russia
US Army Staff Sergeant Gordon Black talks with his lawyer, while sitting in a glass cage in a courtroom in Vladivostok, Russia, on June 19, 2024 [AP Photo]

A Russian court has handed a United States soldier a jail sentence as Moscow said it is awaiting Washington’s response to prisoner swap proposals.

The Pervomaisky District Court of Vladivostok sentenced US staff sergeant Gordon Black to three years and nine months in a penal colony on Wednesday for stealing $113 from his girlfriend and threatening to kill her, according to state-run TASS and Sputnik.

The sentencing adds to the list of US citizens jailed in Russia amid the deterioration in relations ushered in by the invasion of Ukraine. A senior official said on the same day that Moscow is waiting for Washington to respond to its latest prisoner swap proposals.

‘Their problem’

Russia is holding at least a dozen US citizens in jail, including corporate security executive Paul Whelan, musician Travis Leake – arrested last year on drug-related charges – teacher Marc Fogel – sentenced to 14 years in prison, also on drug charges – and dual national Ksenia Khavana.

On Tuesday, a court turned down an appeal by another twin passport holder Alsu Kurmasheva against the extension of her pre-trial detention. The Radio Free Europe journalist was arrested eight months ago and has been charged with spreading “false information” about the military.

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich is due to face trial behind closed doors on charges of espionage, which he has denied, on Tuesday.

President Vladimir Putin said in February that talks on a prisoner swap involving the journalist were under way, but the Kremlin has not given any details on the progress of the negotiations.

“The ball is in the court of the United States, we are waiting for them to respond to the ideas that were presented to them,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told state news agency TASS.

“They are well known to the relevant parts of the US administration. I understand that, perhaps, something in these ideas does not suit the Americans. That’s their problem,” he added.

 

Evan Gershkovich in a glass-walled dock in a Moscow court. He is waving.
Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich stands in a glass cage in a courtroom at the First Appeals Court of General Jurisdiction in Moscow, Russia, on April 23, 2024 [Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo]

‘Tempestuous affair’

Thirty-four-year-old Black was arrested last month in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok, where he was visiting his Russian girlfriend Alexandra Vashuk.

Vashuk accused Black of stealing 10,000 roubles ($113) and threatening her. The soldier’s family, including his wife and the mother of his child in Texas, have said the pair had a tempestuous affair.

Standing in a glass cage in the courtroom, Black pleaded “partially guilty” to theft and not guilty to making death threats. His defence lawyer will appeal the verdict.

Black and Vashuk met in South Korea in October 2022 on the dating app Tinder, subsequently dating each other there. Vashuk then invited Black to Vladivostok.

Black this year signed out of the Eighth Army at Camp Humphreys in the Republic of South Korea to return to Fort Cavazos in Texas on a permanent change of station, but instead flew to China and then to Russia to meet Vashchuk.

The Pentagon said that Black broke army rules by travelling to Russia and China without authorisation.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies