POLITICS

Russian court begins trial of US soldier arrested on theft charges

Jun 6, 2024, 3:50 AM

MOSCOW (AP) — A court in Russia’s far eastern city of Vladivostok on Thursday began the trial of an American soldier arrested in the city earlier this year on charges of stealing.

Staff Sgt. Gordon Black, 34, flew to Vladivostok, a Pacific port city, to see his girlfriend and was arrested after she accused him of stealing from her, according to U.S. officials and Russian authorities. He faces up to five years in prison if convicted.

Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported from the courtroom in the Pervomaisky District Court in Vladivostok on Thursday that Black has agreed to testify in the trial and will respond to the accusations against him later in the proceedings. The report also cited local police as saying that Black is cooperating with the authorities.

Black’s arrest further complicates U.S. relations with Russia, which have grown increasingly tense as the fighting in Ukraine continues.

Russia is holding a number of Americans in its jails, 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 for their release.

Others detained include Travis Leake, a musician who had 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.

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 clearance for the international travel and it wasn’t authorized by the Defense Department. Given the hostilities in Ukraine and ongoing threats to the U.S. and its military, it is extremely unlikely he would have been granted approval.

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 spokeswoman, said that 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.”

Black’s girlfriend, Alexandra Vashchuk, told reporters after the court hearing on Thursday 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.

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

According to U.S. officials, the Russian woman 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 Korean authorities had in the matter.

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Russian court begins trial of US soldier arrested on theft charges