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US soldier convicted of theft in Russia and sentenced to nearly 4 years in prison

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MOSCOW (AP) — A court in Russia’s far eastern city of Vladivostok on Wednesday convicted a visiting American soldier of stealing and making threats of murder, and it sentenced him to three years and nine months in prison.

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

Russia’s state news agencies Tass and RIA Novosti reported that the judge in Pervomaisky District Court in Vladivostok also ordered Black to pay 10,000 rubles ($115) in damages. Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of four years and eight months in prison.

Black’s case occurs amid tensions over Russia’s arrests of American journalists and other U.S. nationals as the fighting in Ukraine continues.

Russia has jailed a number of Americans, 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 their release.

Others detained include Travis Leake, a musician who has 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.

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.”

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 such travel clearance 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’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.

On Wednesday, she told Russian news outlet Gazeta.ru that she considers the sentence “quite humane” and described Black as “violent and unable to control himself.”

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

According to U.S. officials, she 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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