Russia puts Ukraine aviator in the dock
Russia on Thursday opens the high-profile trial of Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko in a politically charged case that could send ties between Moscow and Kiev to a new low.
The 34-year-old helicopter navigator, who has been in detention for more than a year, faces up to 25 years in prison for her alleged involvement in the killing of two Russian journalists in 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.
Kiev says the woman was captured by pro-Moscow separatists and taken to Russia against her will in June 2014.
Ahead of the trial, the General Prosecutor's Office in Kiev formally announced it suspected six Russian officials including investigators and court officials of committing crimes against Savchenko.
Ilya Novikov, one of her lawyers, said Russia's first deputy foreign minister was among them.
The defence team of Savchenko, who refused food for more than 80 days to protest her detention, has described the case the latest in a series of show trials of Kremlin critics that analysts say have become a familiar feature of Russia's political landscape.
"There is not any trial," lawyer Mark Feigin told AFP. "It will be a pedestrian propaganda spectacle."
Savchenko -- who was elected a member of Ukraine's parliament in absentia last October -- will be put in the dock in the southern Russian city of Donetsk located on the border with Ukraine.
Her lawyers say the choice of the city is aimed at moving the trial out of the public eye and complicating access to the provincial courtroom for foreign observers.
Lawyers say they have no doubt she will be given a lengthy prison term, even though there is evidence that she was not involved in the killing of the journalists.
Novikov said phone billing data confirmed that Savchenko had already been taken prisoner by separatists when the Russian journalists died.
The state RIA Novosti news agency said presiding judge Leonid Stepanenko has never acquitted anyone, although just over half of the defendants he judged were given suspended sentences.
Few doubt that the Ukrainian pilot's fate will really be decided in the Kremlin, and Western leaders and Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine have repeatedly called on Putin to let her go.
- Swap possible? -
Alexander Baunov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, did not rule out that Savchenko may be used as a bargaining chip or swapped for Russian servicemen.
"Such things are possible, all the more so because there are people who can be exchanged," Baunov told AFP.
Ukrainian authorities said in May they had captured two Russian soldiers and pledged they would be returned home if they confess in court.
Savchenko is one of the first Ukrainian women to train as an air force pilot and served as a peacekeeper in Iraq for six months.
In her Russian prison cell, she refused food for more than 80 days but broke off her hunger strike in March because of severe health problems.
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."
Ahead of the trial Savchenko was transferred to a detention centre in Novocherkassk known for its grim reputation.
In 1962, Soviet forces in Novocherkassk brutally suppressed a rare protest by striking factory workers in one of the worst massacres of the USSR's postwar era.
In 1994, the city saw the execution of Russia's most feared serial killer, Andrei Chikatilo.
This month Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov went on trial in Rostov-on-Don on terror charges in a case decried by Kiev.
Kiev and the West accuse Russia of buttressing separatists and sending weapons and troops across the border in a conflict that has claimed at least 6,800 lives since April 2014.
© 2015 AFP