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Russian Court Sentences Ukrainian Pilot to 22 Years in Prison

  • Charles Maynes

Nadiya Savchenko sits in a glass cage during proceedings against her in a court in Donetsk, in Russia's Rostov-on-Don region, March 21, 2016.

Nadiya Savchenko sits in a glass cage during proceedings against her in a court in Donetsk, in Russia's Rostov-on-Don region, March 21, 2016.

A Russian court Tuesday found captured Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko guilty of complicity in the murder of two Russian journalists covering the war in eastern Ukraine and sentenced her to 22 years in a Russian prison.

Specifically, the court convicted Savchenko of directing artillery fire that led to the deaths of Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin – television journalists with Kremlin state media who were reporting on fighting between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army in the Luhansk region of east Ukraine before their deaths in July 2014.

On a separate charge, the court fined Savchenko $440 for crossing into Russian territory illegally.

Savchenko, 34, denies involvement in the deaths of the journalists – saying cell phone records indicate she was captured by pro-Moscow militants prior to the journalists' deaths. Savchenko also insists she was subsequently kidnapped and taken into Russia against her will.

Savchenko has made no secret of her contempt for the Russian court proceedings. Throughout the 14-month trial, she went on repeated hunger strikes and railed against Russian justice. During her final statement to the court, Savchenko even waved her middle finger at the presiding judge.

Those tactics continued Tuesday: as Judge Leonid Stepanenko announced sentencing, Savchenko broke out into a song about Ukraine’s Maidan revolution – forcing the judge to adjourn before he finished reading out his ruling.

Verdict no surprise

The conviction was widely expected – most of all by Savchenko's lawyers, who say the case was politically motivated and could only end in a guilty verdict.

In an interview with VOA, Savchenko's lawyer, Mark Feygin, said his client planned to go on a hunger strike and refuse water within 10 days if she wasn't released – continuing a high stakes game aimed at garnering her release despite the ruling.

FILE- People take part in a rally in central Kyiv, Ukraine, demanding the release from a Russian prison of Ukrainian army pilot Nadiya Savchenko, March 6, 2016.

FILE- People take part in a rally in central Kyiv, Ukraine, demanding the release from a Russian prison of Ukrainian army pilot Nadiya Savchenko, March 6, 2016.


"For the Kremlin, Savchenko is the war in the Donbas. They need her conviction for propagandistic purposes," said Feygin. "And Savchenko, she understands she's a symbol too... and she's willing to sacrifice herself if necessary."

The Savchenko trial has captivated audiences on both sides of the conflict in east Ukraine.

For Russians, Savchenko was touted as the Ukrainian face of what the Kremlin has branded a "fascist junta" that came to power after the Maidan revolution that toppled Ukraine's pro-Moscow government of Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014.

Personifying defiance

For Ukrainians, Savchenko has emerged as personified defiance to the Kremlin's ongoing proxy war in the Donbas region of east Ukraine. Since the trial began, Savchenko has been elected to the Ukrainian parliament and appointed as a Ukrainian delegate member to the Council of Europe.

The growing symbolism of the case has pulled in a growing chorus of Western powers - including the United States and the European Union - to criticize the case as a sham and call for Savchenko's immediate release.

U.S. President Barack Obama made a personal appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a phone call with him earlier this month. Putin said Russian justice would run its course.

Yet rumors have persisted for weeks that following the verdict, the Kremlin would be willing to trade Savchenko for Russian soldiers captured in battle in Ukraine, despite Moscow insisting it is not a participant in the conflict.

Immediately following the ruling, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko issued a statement calling for Savchenko's inclusion in a soldier swap with Moscow.

Ilya Novikov, another of Savchenko's lawyers, said in a posting online that negotiations aimed at resolving "the Savchenko problem" were already under way.

"We've reached the point where - with every day – it becomes more unpleasant and expensive (for Russia) to hold Nadezhda," he said, writing in Russian and using the Russian version of Savchenko’s first name.

Novikov pointed to a planned visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow on Wednesday as a key development.

Kerry's visit had been expected to focus on the U.S.-Russian negotiated cease-fire in Syria.

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