SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine -- A court in Ukraine's Russian-controlled Crimea region has sentenced prominent Crimean Tatar leader Akhtem Chiygoz, to eight years in prison after what Amnesty International called a "sham trial."
A court in the regional capital, Simferopol, sentenced Chiygoz on September 11 after finding him guilty of organizing an illegal demonstration there in February 2014.
Chiygoz is the deputy chairman of the Majlis, the Crimean Tatar assembly that was outlawed by Russia after it occupied and seized control of the Black Sea peninsula.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Chiygoz's jailing adds to the case against Russia, which had already been "recognized as an occupier at the highest international level."
"One can unlawfully confine someone's freedom, but it's impossible to break the will! You may occupy foreign land, but it will burn under your feet," Poroshenko said on Twitter.
Ukraine's Foreign Ministry issued a strongly worded protest over the trial, verdict, and sentence.
It said Chiygoz was arrested for "his support for Ukrainian territorial integrity and fight for human rights."
The case against Chiygoz was "another demonstration of the repressive policy conducted by Russian on the Crimean Peninsula for the purpose of suppressing dissent...and discriminating against Crimean Tatars," the ministry said.
Refat Chubarov -- the chairman of the Crimean Tatars' self-governing body, the Mejlis, which is now banned by Moscow -- called the sentence "a new attempt to intimidate Crimean Tatars and suppress their will." Chubarov fled Crimea after Russia illegally annexed the peninsula in March 2014.
Rights groups say Chiygoz is a victim of a persistent campaign of reprisals against Crimeans who opposed Russia's seizure of the Ukrainian region.
Amnesty International called for his immediate release.
"The unfair trial of Akhtem Chiygoz tops a wave of spurious and demonstrably false criminal and administrative cases instigated by the occupying Russian authorities against members of the Crimean Tatar community," a statement from the London-based group quoted Oksana Pokalchuk, its director in Ukraine, as saying.
"It epitomizes the ongoing persecution of these activists whose only 'crime' is to vocally oppose Crimea’s annexation by Russia."
In a statement posted on Facebook, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks, said that the judgment against Chiygoz "represents yet another blow to the already difficult situation of Tatars in Crimea."
"Chiygoz has been in fact convicted for having violated a law that was not applicable when the facts in question occurred,” Muiznieks said.
"This raises serious doubts as to this judgment’s compatibility with the [European Convention on Human Rights] which clearly establishes that 'no one shall be held guilty of any criminal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a criminal offence under national or international law at the time when it was committed.'"
After a Moscow-friendly Ukrainian president was pushed from power by pro-European protests in Kyiv, Russia took control of Crimea in March 2014 by sending in troops and staging a referendum denounced as illegitimate by at least 100 countries including the United States and Ukraine.
Russia has been criticized by international rights groups and Western governments for its treatment of members of the indigenous Turkic-speaking Crimean Tatar minority.
Chiygoz, 52, and two other Crimean Tatars charged in connection with the demonstration -- Ali Asanov and Mustafa Degermendzhy -- are recognized as political prisoners by the Russian human rights group Memorial.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and other international organizations have called for their releases.
In a September 11 statement, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s office called for Chyigoz to be released, saying that “the banning of the activities of the Mejlis … and the persecution of its leaders constitute serious and unacceptable violations of their rights.”
It also said it expects separatism charges against another deputy chairman of the Mejlis, Ilmi Umerov, to be “immediately dropped.”
Umerov, who has criticized Russia's seizure of Crimea, went on trial in Simferopol in June. He denies the charges against, saying he has the right to express his opinions.
With reporting by Reuters