Reporters Without Borders expressed shock and dismay after Vladimir Lutiev, editor of the weekly Evpatoriskaya Nedelia, was sentenced to eight years in prison by the Sebastopol appeal court in the autonomous republic of Crimea, according to a press-release, forwarded to UNIAN by the Reporters Without Borders.

He had been held in custody since 30 June 2005 on the basis of a charge of attempted murder, laid by a former member of parliament, Nikolai Kotliarevski, who is himself accused of corruption.

"We are alarmed by the Ukrainian justice system`s scandalous decision to sentence a journalist to eight years in prison, without any proper proof and simply on the basis of accusations made by a former deputy," the press freedom organisation said.

"This sentence raises doubts about the independence of justice officials in this region. We urge the Ukrainian government to urgently re-examine this case, the worst press freedom violation in the country since the election of President Viktor Yushchenko," it added.

The appeal court also ordered the journalist to pay damages to the complainant of 100,000 grivnas (about 15,600 euros).

The journalist`s lawyer, Viktor Ovechkin, told Reporters Without Borders that he was planning to appeal the court decision within the two-week period allowed under law. He added that the court had refused to examine evidence presented by the defence or to hear defence witnesses. He said his client was the victim of hounding by the former local authorities, seeking revenge over corruption accusations reported by the journalist.

Lilia Budjurova, a journalist and official with the Crimean Association of Free Journalists, said she was astonished that a Ukrainian journalist could be convicted without evidence while a former official accused of corruption was at liberty.

 Kotliarevski is facing charges in two criminal cases.

Vladimir Lutiev wrote a number of articles critical of Nikolai Kotliarevski, a former member of parliament in the autonomous republic of Crimea, whom he suspected of electoral fraud and corruption.

In October 2002, Lutiev was denounced by a former official in the department for the fight against organised crime and arrested on the basis of this claim. The case was discharged in 2003 following support from numerous press freedom organisations including Reporters Without Borders.