(MOSCOW) — Two dozen Eastern European “mercenaries,” including two Russians, were convicted and handed harsh sentences in Libya Monday for allegedly helping to target NATO warplanes on behalf of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi before his death — charges that the accused and their home countries strongly deny.
“We were outraged with the court’s decision,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said Tuesday, according to Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti. “We believe this is unfair. We will follow the case seriously.”
The group of men, which in addition to the Russians includes 19 Ukrainians and three Belarusians, was reportedly accused of helping pro-Gadhafi troops zero in on NATO planes with ground-to-air missile systems during Libya’s bloody uprising last year. In early 2011, the U.S. led a NATO effort to secure a no-fly zone over the north African nation in a stated mission to protect civilians.
The supposed ringleader of the group, a Russian, was sentenced to life in prison and the others were given 10 years hard labor.
When the trial began in April, a spokesperson for the court called the men “mercenaries” and said they were captured by rebels when Tripoli fell in late August 2011, according to Agence France Presse.
The men claimed they were only in the country to work in the oil industry and AFP reported the Ukrainian ambassador to Libya, Mykola Nahornyi, said they had been forced to work for Gadhafi “under armed threat.” Nahornyi also said the missile systems did not target NATO aircraft and were never fired.
Bogdanov said Russia would work closely with officials from the Ukraine and Belarus to appeal the case on behalf of their citizens, as well as apply other kinds of pressure on Libya to secure their release.
“Of course there will be an appeal and we will be using other levers of influence on the legal proceedings. And we will also use political leverage and our community,” he said.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Chandrika Narayan and Steve Almasy, CNN
Karla Pequenino, CNN
Kareem Khadder, CNN