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Jailed, Hunger-Striking Ukrainian On Trial Again In Russian-Controlled Crimea

Volodymyr Balukh appears in Crimea's Rozdolne district court on May 15.

Volodymyr Balukh, an imprisoned pro-Kyiv activist who has been on hunger strike for 55 days and whose release has been demanded by Washington, is on trial again in Russian-controlled Crimea.

The trial of Balukh, one of dozens of Crimeans prosecuted by Russia in what rights groups say has been a persistent campaign to silence dissent since Moscow seized the Ukrainian region in 2014, began at Rozdolne district court on May 15.

Balukh was sentenced in January to three years and seven months in a penal colony where convicts live close to an industrial facility or a farm where they work, after being convicted on a weapons-and-explosives-possession charge.

Balukh's initial sentence to the same prison term in August had been annulled by an appeals court and returned for additional investigation. Balukh insists the case against him was politically motivated.

In March, a new case was launched against Balukh after a warden in a local detention center in Crimea claimed that Balukh attacked him. Balukh denies the charge, saying the warden attacked him.

On May 3, the United States said that Balukh is a political prisoner and called on the "Russian occupation authorities in Crimea" to release him.

"Unacceptable for Russia to jail a Ukrainian citizen for flying a Ukrainian flag in Crimea and deny him medical care," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Twitter.

The new trial started the same day that Russian President Vladimir Putin ceremonially opened a bridge linking Russia to Crimea.

Balukh was arrested in December 2016, after the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) said explosives and 90 bullets were found in the attic of his home.

The search was conducted shortly after Balukh planted a Ukrainian flag in his yard and affixed a sign to his house that read Heavenly Hundred Street, 18.

"Heavenly Hundred" is a term Ukrainians use for the dozens of people killed when security forces fired on protesters in Kyiv in February 2014, shortly before Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych was driven from power.

After Yanukovych's ouster, Russia seized Crimea by sending in troops and staging a referendum dismissed as illegal by Ukraine, the United States, and about 100 other countries.

The Russian takeover badly damaged Moscow's relations with Kyiv and the West and resulted in the imposition of sanctions by the European Union, the United States, and several other countries.

Rights groups say Crimean residents who opposed Russia's takeover have faced discrimination and abuse at the hands of the Moscow-imposed authorities.

In 2017, the European Parliament called on Moscow to free more than 30 Ukrainian citizens who were in prison or under other conditions of restricted freedom in Russia, Crimea, and parts of eastern Ukraine that are controlled by Russia-backed separatists.