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A military court in Russia has sentenced a Ukrainian film director to 20 years in prison for allegedly plotting terrorist attacks in Crimea. The trial's one of several high-profile cases in Russia recently that drew protest from human rights groups and Western governments, including the United States. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: As the sentence was being read, Oleh Sentsov and his co-defendant, Oleksander Kolchenko, laughed derisively and began singing the Ukrainian national anthem.
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OLEH SENTSOV: (Singing in foreign language).
OLEKSANDER KOLCHENKO: (Singing in foreign language).
FLINTOFF: Sentsov was accused of leading a terrorist cell that allegedly plotted attacks in Crimea after the Ukrainian region was taken over by Russian troops in February of last year. Prosecutors said Sentsov's group planned to blow up a statue of Lenin and a monument to Soviet soldiers from World War II.
TANYA LOKSHINA: We are talking about a man against whom the prosecutors had no criminal evidence - no evidence of his direct involvement in any criminal acts.
FLINTOFF: That's Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch in Moscow. She says the charges against Sentsov were trumped up, but that even if they were true, the sentence of 20 years in prison was disproportionately long. Sentsov's co-defendant, Kolchenko, confessed to two arson attacks that caused minor damage at pro-Russian organizations in Crimea and was given 10 years in prison. Sentsov's supporters say that he was targeted because he's a high-profile figure - an up-and-coming film director who attracted a lot of attention with his 2011 debut "Gamer."
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FLINTOFF: It's about a Ukrainian teenager who wins big at a video game championship. Last year, more than a dozen noted film directors and producers, including Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, wrote an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin calling for Sentsov's release. Sentsov's conviction was based on the testimony of two other defendants who said he was their leader in the terrorist group. Again, Tanya Lokshina.
LOKSHINA: One of those individuals actually withdrew his testimony, saying that he provided the testimony under torture. And the testimony had been entirely false.
FLINTOFF: Sentsov himself said that police had beaten him and threatened to rape and kill him if he didn't sign a confession. U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby condemned the trial and sentencing, calling it a miscarriage of justice.
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JOHN KIRBY: Mr. Sentsov and Mr. Kolchenko were targeted by authorities because of their opposition to Russia's attempted annexation of Crimea.
FLINTOFF: The Sentstov case isn't the only one that's attracted international condemnation. Last week, a secret court in Russia sentenced an Estonian intelligence officer, Eston Kohver, to 15 years in prison for spying. Estonia says that not only was Kohver not a spy, but that he was kidnapped by Russian agents on Estonian soil. Tanya Lokshina points to a number of harsh sentences in political cases over the past several years and says they're designed to send a message to the public.
LOKSHINA: If you're discontented, you should keep quiet or else - or you might face very serious consequences.
FLINTOFF: The next high-profile trial that's expected in Russia is that of Nadiya Savchenko, a Ukrainian army pilot who's accused of targeting two Russian journalists who were killed by artillery fire in eastern Ukraine last year. Ukraine says that Savchenko, too, was kidnapped and subjected to trumped-up charges in Russia. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.
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