Trial of Ukrainian woman pilot 'hero' starts in Russia

2015-07-30 17:29
Nadiya Savchenko protest in Kiev. (<a href=www.shutterstock.com>Shutterstock</a>)

Nadiya Savchenko protest in Kiev. (Shutterstock)

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Donetsk - Ukrainian pilot and lawmaker Nadiya Savchenko went on trial in Russia on Thursday in a politically charged case that could send tensions between Moscow and Kiev to a new high.

The 34-year-old helicopter navigator faces up to 25 years in prison for her alleged involvement in the killing of two Russian journalists in war-torn eastern Ukraine last year.

Savchenko, who is seen by her compatriots as a symbol of resistance against what most Ukrainians consider an insurgency fuelled by President Vladimir Putin's government, has denied any involvement.

After more than a year in detention, the aviator was put in the dock in the small southern Russian town of Donetsk on the border with eastern Ukraine.

Her lawyers say the authorities violated legal procedures when they opted to try their client outside Moscow, in a border town close to a conflict zone, in an apparent bid to shield the hearings from the public eye.

The closed-door preliminary hearing was adjourned on Thursday afternoon after the judge granted the defence team's request for a higher court to review their petition to move the trial to Moscow.

'Small victory' 

"This is a small tactical victory, but it is too early to talk about the case as a whole," said one of her lawyers, Nikolai Polozov.

"The Donetsk city court cannot hear this case because there is not one condition that would ensure a fair, comprehensive legal process," added another lawyer, Mark Feigin.

Polozov said that the pilot was in "good health" and even enjoyed better conditions than other detainees.

Donetsk has no jail and Savchenko had to be transported to the court from Novocherkassk, a city nearly two hours away by car.

After the hearing she was driven away in a van with a barred window with a traffic police escort as around a dozen police, armed troops and Cossack militia looked on.

Few doubt that Savchenko's fate will be decided in the Kremlin, and Western leaders as well as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine have called on Putin to let her go.

Embassy staff from several countries including Britain, the United States as well as the European Union were in Donetsk to observe the trial.

Swap possible? 

Two journalists from Russian public broadcaster VGTRK, Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin, died in shelling on June 17 2014, in Ukraine's Lugansk region.

Russian prosecutors say Savchenko was involved in the killing in her capacity as a volunteer in a Ukrainian battalion.

The prosecution also accuses her of illegally crossing the border into Russia where she was detained.

Savchenko has denied the charges and refused food for more than 80 days to protest her detention. She broke off her hunger strike in March because of severe health problems.

The defence argues that phone bills confirmed she had already been taken prisoner by separatists when the journalists died, and accuses the investigation of doctoring video evidence.

"If (the case) is needed for political and propaganda purposes, they should have picked a more suitable person to prosecute," said Feigin. "She is innocent."

Moscow is prosecuting her despite diplomatic immunity she enjoys as a lawmaker and a member of the Ukrainian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

Savchenko's supporters hope that even if convicted, she will not have to serve out her sentence in full and some observers do not rule out that she may be swapped for Russian officers detained by Ukraine.

'Harshest sentence' 

Kiev accuses Russia of kidnapping and smuggling her across the border, and the Ukraine prosecutor's office announced Wednesday it suspected six Russian officials of taking part in her detention and prosecution.

"We'll be working on the assumption that the sentence has already been written and it's the harshest possible," said lawyer Ilya Novikov.

Savchenko was one of the first Ukrainian women to train as an air force pilot and served in Iraq for six months.

In an interview with a Ukrainian newspaper in 2009, she said she could go without sleep for five days and had no problem sharing a room at night "with 25 guys".

Kiev and the West accuse Russia of sending weapons and troops across the border to help separatists in a conflict that has claimed at least 6,800 lives since April 2014.

Read more on:    russia  |  ukraine

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