Vitaly Markiv was on trial for the killing of Italian photographer Andrea Rocchelli and his Russian assistant Andrei Mironov — a former Soviet era dissident — in May 2014, the first media deaths in the war between government forces and pro-Russian separatists.
The pair were hit by shrapnel from mortar shells during a fierce firefight near the flashpoint of Slavyansk in the rebel-held east. French photographer William Roquelon, who was travelling with the two, was also seriously wounded.
Il Giorno reported that the sentence against Markiv, who also has Italian citizenship, was higher than the 17 years requested by the prosecution.
Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov had testified on behalf of Markiv, telling the court he was “totally convinced” of his innocence. On Friday, he branded the sentence “unfair and shameful” and said it would be appealed.
“Our guardsman and Ukraine aren't guilty of the death of Rocchelli. He's become the victim of an aggressive Russia which unleashed in Sloviansk (Slavyansk) a war on Donbass (eastern Ukraine),” he wrote in English on Twitter. “We'll continue fighting!”
Markiv was arrested at Bologna airport in June 2017 after arriving on a flight from Ukraine. He has since been held in several prisons in Italy, according to Il Giorno.
Rocchelli, 30, was the founder of the Cesura photo agency and a contributor to leading media organisations such as US magazine Newsweek and the French daily Le Monde.
About 13,000 people have been killed in the conflict in eastern Ukraine that erupted in 2014 after a popular uprising ousted pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych and Russia responded by annexing Crimea.