A Ukrainian military pilot has been sentenced to 22 years in jail after being convicted of murdering two Russian journalists following a highly politicized trial that has deepened the diplomatic rift between Moscow and the West.
Nadiya Savchenko was accused of helping direct a mortar strike that killed Anton Voloshin and Igor Kornelyuk, two employees of a Russian, state-owned television network, during a battle near Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, in June 2014.
But the 34-year-old helicopter navigator denied all charges and described the Kremlin's case against her as "a piece of rubbish." She insisted that pro-Russian separatists had seized her before the journalists were killed and that she was later smuggled across the Russian border "at gun point".
The contentious case helped fuel the propaganda war between Moscow and Kiev and sparked protests across Europe — one demonstration saw angry Ukrainians pelt the Russian embassy in Kiev with eggs over her plight. Savchenko's case became a cause célèbre in her home country with her countrymen hailing her as a symbol of Ukrainian defiance and identity.
Western politicians have called for Savchenko's release while her lawyers have branded the legal process in Russia a farcical show trial. The United States and Europe have strongly criticized the prosecution, accusing Russia of fabricating the charges for political reasons. Last week US President Barack Obama joined the chorus of those imploring the Kremlin to secure Savchenko's release but the Russian President rebuffed Obama's request in a phone call, according to Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.
Although phone records showed that Savchenko was not at the mortar position on the day the reporters were killed, her lawyers had little hope that she would be acquitted.
As the judge concluded his two-day summing up on Tuesday afternoon and pronounced the guilty verdict, Savchenko defiantly burst into a folk-style protest song from the confines of her glass cage. Scuffles were reported in the courtroom after members of a Ukrainian delegation unfurled a national flag.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said his country would never recognize the "so-called" verdict and described the trial as "infamous."
During the trial, Savchenko said that she had been captured in an ambush by separatist fighters from the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic. She said that her captors at first held her as a prisoner of war, adding: "Less than a week later, they said that they would sell me to Russia."
She was allegedly interrogated while chained to a radiator; one smuggled video later showed her shouting at her separatist captors: "Your Russian authorities just want to kill me."
Savchenko said she was handed over to masked men with automatic weapons who "spoke with Russian accents and did not speak Ukrainian." These men, who she assumed were Russian special forces, bundled her into a van and drove her over the border, she claimed. She eventually resurfaced in the southern Russian city of Voronezh as a prisoner.
During one court appearance, Savchenko said: "I have found out that I have lots of friends in Russia. I'm in Russia for the first time and am in jail. I've barely ever spoken to Russian people. But now I get letters from you and I understand that you understand, and you have your own opinions and you feel for yourself what's right and wrong. And you don't see us as your enemy. And I don't consider you our enemy either."
As part of her defense, she accused Russia of "long [behaving] in a hypocritical and two-faced way" and said that she did not have the specialist mathematical skills needed to direct artillery fire.
Tuesday's verdict in the small Russian border town of Donetsk (a different place to the rebel-held city in Ukraine) came after Savchenko has spent more than a year in detention. Dubbed "Ukraine's GI Jane," she is regarded as a national hero at home and was elected to parliament while in jail. Meanwhile, the Russian press has depicted her as a remorseless nationalist with the blood of civilians on her hands, describing her as a "daughter of Satan" and "a killing machine in a skirt."
Prosecutors said she was driven by "political hatred" and refuted her claim that she was abducted, instead arguing that she crossed the border of her own accord, disguised as a refugee. On Monday, judge Leonid Stepanenko told the packed courtroom during a summary lasting more than eight hours: "Savchenko committed murder by prior arrangement with a group of people out of hate and hostility."
During her detention, Savchenko threatened to disrupt the controversial proceedings by starving herself to death. She went on "dry" hunger strike, refusing both liquids and solid food. Her defense lawyers, Mark Feygin and Nikolai Polezov, claimed that she was losing half a kilogram of weight a day and "approaching a phase when irreversible changes start in her body."
Savchenko was already known in Ukraine before her detention, thanks to a ground-breaking career. She left school at 16 to train as a paratrooper and persuaded her country's top brass to let her become the first female cadet in Kharkiv air academy — going on to become a gunner and navigator on Mi-24 helicopter gunships and the only female soldier to serve among Ukraine's 1,690-strong peacekeeping force in Iraq.
After Russia stoked a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine as part of a clandestine military campaign, Savchenko joined Ukraine's Aidar battalion as a volunteer and was transferred to the frontline.
Amnesty International has called for a full and impartial investigation into her trial. "The litany of dubious procedures and decisions by the presiding judge over the course of this trial shows a clear contempt for due process and suggests Nadiya never had a hope of proving her innocence," said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Director of the human rights group.
Despite a ceasefire agreement signed in Minsk last year, fighting continues in eastern Ukraine, seeing a sharp uptick in recent weeks around the separatist stronghold of Donetsk. The war has claimed more than 9,000 lives since hostilities erupted almost two years ago.
Part of the Minsk peace deal called for an exchange of hostages and all those "unlawfully detained" during the ongoing conflict.
Poroshenko today said he was ready to exchange Savchenko for two Russian soldiers detained in Ukraine for "their participation in the armed aggression" against the country, while Ukraine's foreign minister vowed to continue to fight for her release.
There is speculation that Savchenko will be used by Putin as a bargaining chip. Against the backdrop of a stronger Ukrainian military, an ever-sluggish Russian economy, Moscow's hostility to NATO "encirclement," and Putin's continued desire to destabilize Ukraine, Savchenko could well become part of a Cold War-style trade.
Beyond today's sentencing, diplomatic flashpoints, and geopolitical tussling, those close to Nadiya Savchenko say they will continue the fight to prevent her from becoming another forgotten victim of a forgotten war. Her first name means "hope" in Ukrainian — "Hope is the last thing to die," she said at her trial.
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