Ukrainian Pilot Sentenced To 22 Years Over Russian Reporters' Deaths

Ukrainian Pilot Sentenced To 22 Years Over Russian Reporters' Deaths

Ukrainian military pilot Nadiya Savchenko looks out from a defendants' cage as she attends the verdict announcement at a court in the southern Russian town of Donetsk, on March 21, 2016. (AFP)

DONETSK, Russia: A Russian court sentenced a Ukrainian military pilot, Lt. Nadiya V. Savchenko, to 22 years in prison on Tuesday after finding her guilty of complicity in the deaths of two Russian journalists, in a politically charged case that highlighted the strained relations between Moscow and the West.

When the judge began to read out the sentence, Savchenko started to sing a song in Ukrainian.

The judge had to stop the proceedings for at least five minutes. The hearing was interrupted again later, after people in the crowd began to sing the Ukrainian anthem.

"Simply put, Lt. Savchenko did not get a fair trial, and so her conviction is unsound and should not stand," Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

"There should be justice for the deaths of Kornelyuk and Voloshin, but justice won't be served by an unfair trial that was highly politicized from the start," he said, referring to the two journalists, Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin.

After the sentencing, Ukraine's president, Petro O. Poroshenko, said he was willing to speak with President Vladimir Putin of Russia about exchanging Savchenko for two Russian servicemen captured in Ukraine, whom he did not name.

"President Putin said he would return Nadiya V. Savchenko to Ukraine after the so-called court decision," Poroshenko said in a statement published on his website. "Now, it is time to fulfill that promise."

Putin's spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, told the Interfax news agency that only the Russian president could make such a decision.

The Donetsk City Court said Savchenko had directed mortar fire at a rebel-held checkpoint, resulting in the deaths of two Russian reporters during the height of the fighting in eastern Ukraine in June 2014.

Donetsk, a small Russian town 520 miles south of Moscow, near the Ukrainian border, shares a name with the larger city in eastern Ukraine that is the center of the separatist movement. The area around the courthouse was cordoned off by special police units wearing masks.

The pilot, considered a martyr in Ukraine and elected to Parliament there in absentia, has denied all charges, saying that she was kidnapped by Russia an hour before Kornelyuk and Voloshin were killed, and that she was spirited across the border to Russia to face a show trial.

In Russia, the state news media has turned Savchenko into a symbol of violent anti-Russian nationalism in Ukraine. Russia also said she had entered the country on her own accord, and she was also convicted of illegal entry.

During the trial, her lawyers and others raised serious problems with the evidence. Savchenko's lawyers offered cellphone records indicating that she was at least 3 miles from the shelling site when it took place.

Then, in an interview published Monday by Meduza.io, a news website, a rebel leader claimed to have captured Savchenko before the shelling that killed the Russian journalists took place. The rebel identified himself by a military nickname, Ilim.

The West and Ukraine have said that the case amounted to the latest in a long series of show trials, and President Barack Obama and several European leaders were among the critics.

In a telephone call to Putin last week, Obama urged him to release Savchenko. Putin rejected the request, according to a statement by his spokesman, Peskov, saying he could not interfere in the judicial process.

Several Western and Ukrainian diplomats were on hand to witness the announcement of the verdict, as were some of Savchenko's relatives and a dozen supporters, including members of the Ukrainian parliament, as well as a small army of reporters.

Savchenko will not appeal the court's decision because she does not believe Russian courts can judge her fairly, said her lead lawyer, Mark Feygin. She also asked her lawyers to announce that she would go on a dry hunger strike 10 days after the verdict, when it comes into force. She has gone on dry hunger strikes several times before, including this month.
© 2016, The New York Times News Service


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