Andrey Arhipov/Sputnik via AP
United States veteran Robert Gilman, who has been silently awaiting trial in a Russian detention cell for nine months, begged the court for clemency last week, asking for "forgiveness from the Russian Federation" for his misdemeanor.
He was arrested for "petty hooliganism" in January while traveling from Sochi to Moscow by train to renew his U.S. passport. Fellow passengers had called the transport police at a station in Voronezh to complain that he'd been drinking and was creating a disturbance.
Gilman was taken to a local police station in handcuffs, but was reportedly so drunk that he fell off a bench and onto the floor. On the ground, his legs flailed, kicking a patrol officer on the knee.
He was charged with "the use of violence with respect to a representative of authority," which carries a maximum penalty of five years.
The 28-year-old American, who has a degree in cybersecurity and served in the U.S Marines from 2019-2020, initially pleaded not guilty, saying he couldn't remember the incident and claiming the vodka he had been drinking was poisoned.
At a second hearing he changed his plea to guilty, but said it was an accident and noted that the officer he kicked had already accepted an apology. During last week's appeal to the judge he ended his statement to the court by saying: "Please be kind to me."
"I am a victim of political repression," he recently told Russian reporters. "I didn't do anything. It was a terrible incident that I couldn't prevent. I was unconscious at the time."
Gilman's case has been overlooked by Western media outlets. But with the prospect of him joining fellow American citizens Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, also imprisoned in Russia, in a high-profile prisoner exchange, this will no doubt change.
Andrey Arhipov/Sputnik via AP Robert Gilman
Natalia Filimonova, a prisoner's rights activist with the NGO Russia Behind Bars, has been following the case and tells PEOPLE she was "in shock" at the sentence he received.
"The court's decision is absolutely a political one," she claims. "This is unjustified cruelty."
The officer who was kicked by Gilman suffered minor bruises and abrasions and ultimately dropped the charges. When transport police witnesses were asked to provide evidence against Gilman, they failed to turn up at the trial.
Gilman's lawyer, Valery Ivannikov, previously told PEOPLE that his parents back in the U.S., who were both born in Russia, are not able to communicate with their son directly, only via him.
Kommersant reports that after the sentencing, Gilman's lawyer made a statement, saying, "Taking into consideration the fact that my client admitted his guilt, repented of his deed, and apologized to the victim, we expected a more lenient sentence. We will therefore be appealing and will also apply to the U.S. authorities to initiate a possible exchange process."
Ivan Melnikov, a Russian human rights activist, tells PEOPLE: "It is a very harsh sentence. It seems the authorities are looking for exchange opportunities as they want to get as many [Russian] citizens back [from U.S. prisons] as possible." The last time a former U.S. Marine, Trevor Reed, received a long sentence in Russia, Biden successfully negotiated a prisoner swap, returning Russian drug smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko in exchange for Reed.
In Gilman's final appeal to the court, the clearly desperate man asked the judge not to send him to prison, claiming he intended to take up Russian citizenship. "I came to Russia to live and study here, get citizenship and start a family." He also suggested that he should not be tried as an American, saying, "I am also Russian by my geo-ethnic origin. And I have every right to be in this land in front of you."
He added that he had come to Russia to study at the Moscow State University and was not "some ruffian who came here to fight with the police."