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Ukrainian Pilot Goes on Trial in Russia

FILE - Ukrainian military officer Nadezhda Savchenko attends a court hearing in Moscow, March 26, 2015.
FILE - Ukrainian military officer Nadezhda Savchenko attends a court hearing in Moscow, March 26, 2015.

A Ukraine helicopter pilot accused in the deaths of two Russian journalists last year in war-ravaged eastern Ukraine has formally denied charges from Russian prosecutors, calling the case against her "a piece of rubbish."

Pilot Nadiya Savchenko spoke Tuesday from a glass cage inside a courtroom in southwestern Russia, at the opening of her high-profile trial. "I never in my life shot at unarmed people," she said. "I am a soldier, not a murderer. It's all lies, from beginning to end."

She faces 25 years in prison if convicted on charges that she acted as an aerial spotter last year in eastern Ukraine to help ground troops target the journalists with mortar fire.

Savchenko has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance to Russian presence in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Moscow separatists launched a rebellion in April 2014 against the Kyiv government. Her lawyers say they have telephone records showing their client was captured by rebels before the deaths occurred and then smuggled across the border into Russian territory by Russian agents.

But they also have said their client's conviction is a foregone conclusion, and said Savchenko has prepared herself for any sentence.

Most of the public seats in the courtroom in the Russian border town of Donetsk were occupied by militiamen Tuesday, with journalists forced to observe the trial by video link from an adjoining room.

Three European Union representatives were present at Tuesday's proceedings, along with Savchenko's sister.

The United States has described Savchenko as a pawn in Moscow's faceoff with the Kyiv government, and has called for her release.

Defense lawyer Mark Feigin told reporters Tuesday that proceedings will resume next week, and that a verdict could be announced in November.

Both Russia's town of Donetsk and the rebel-controlled city of the same name in eastern Ukraine take their names from the river Don, which flows nearby.

Last month, a Russian court sentenced acclaimed Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov to 20 years imprisonment on charges of leading a terrorist group in Crimea, the Ukraine peninsula annexed last year by the Russian parliament. The human rights group Amnesty International called that case "fatally flawed."