KYIV -- Dozens of human rights activists have gathered in Kyiv's central square to mark the birthdays of two Ukrainian citizens jailed by the Russian authorities.
The activists held posters demanding the immediate release of Volodymyr Balukh, and Roman Sushchenko, and dozens of other Ukrainian citizens imprisoned in Russia and Moscow-annexed Crimea on what they called politically motivated charges.
Balukh, who marked his 48th birthday on February 8, is serving a nearly five-year prison term in Crimea for possession of weapons and explosives and assaulting a prison guard. He and his supporters reject the charges and say they are politically motivated.
Sushchenko, who is a journalist, was sentenced to 12 years in a high-security prison in June in Russia on espionage charges that he also said are politically motivated. He will mark his 49th birthday on February 9.
The activists expressed their support for the two activists and other Ukrainian citizens held in Russia, and warned that the number of Ukrainian nationals jailed in Russia for their views is on the rise.
Russia seized Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, sending in troops and staging a referendum denounced as illegitimate by at least 100 countries, after Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was pushed from power by protests.
Rights groups say that Russia has moved aggressively to prosecute Ukrainian activists and anyone who questions the annexation.
In 2017, the European Parliament called on Russia to free more than 30 Ukrainian citizens held in Russia, Crimea, and parts of eastern Ukraine that are controlled by Russia-backed separatists.
The list included prominent filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, who is serving a 20-year sentence in a Russian prison after being convicted of plotting terrorist attacks in a trial supporters called absurd.
The list, which the parliament statement said was not complete, also included several leaders of the Crimean Tatar minority, which rights groups say has faced abuse and discrimination since Russia's takeover.