Defiant Ukrainian pilot vows to continue hunger strike
A Ukrainian military helicopter pilot on trial in Russia over the killing of two journalists defiantly raised her middle finger at the court on Wednesday and vowed to press on with a hunger strike.
Nadiya Savchenko’s high-profile case has raised deep concern in the West and in Kiev, where the government denounced the trial as a “farce” and demanded her immediate release.
“I will continue my dry hunger strike,” the 34-year-old said in her final address to the court in the small Russian town of Donetsk, which shares a name with a city in Ukraine’s restive east.
The Iraq war veteran, who has been held by Russia since June 2014, first announced her protest action last Thursday, rejecting both food and water.
Appearing feverish and visibly thinner after several days of fasting, she said she would continue the hunger strike if the court takes longer than a week to announce a verdict.
“Remember — we are playing with my life. And I will win,” Savchenko said. “The stakes are high and I have nothing to lose.”
The judge said the verdict would be handed down on March 21 and 22.
“Here’s my final word,” Savchenko added, climbing onto a bench in her glass enclosure and raising her middle finger.
Refusing both food and water is known in Russia as a “dry hunger strike” and was a method of last resort for some Soviet dissidents under Communism.
The case has reignited tensions between Russia and the West, with both the European Union and the United States calling for Savchenko’s immediate release.
“This is no longer just a judicial or political case: now it’s a matter of human compassion,” the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement.
US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said Wednesday, “(Savchenko) belongs back in Ukraine…we call on Russia to release her at once.”
– Symbol of resistance –
Savchenko is seen by her compatriots as a symbol of resistance against the Kremlin, accused of fuelling the conflict in eastern Ukraine which has claimed more than 9,000 lives since April 2014.
The prosecution has sought a 23-year jail sentence for Savchenko over the killing of two journalists from Russian public broadcaster VGTRK in shelling in Ukraine’s eastern Lugansk region in June, two months after the pro-Russia uprising began.
Prosecutors say she was involved in her capacity as a volunteer in a Ukrainian battalion.
But she says she was kidnapped even before the attack and smuggled across the border into Russia.
Defence lawyers Nikolai Polozov said Savchenko’s health had deteriorated over the past few days and that her temperature had risen to about 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit).
Her lawyers said they will not be able to persuade Savchenko to halt her hunger strike unless she is released.
“She will either be force-fed or die,” said Polozov.
Savchenko has fasted before to protest the accusations against her but has never previously refused water.
Her lawyers said her mother and sister as well as Ukrainian doctors and diplomats would not be allowed to see Savchenko before March 21.
Russia’s foreign ministry said any visits, including by doctors, were “made impossible” by Savchenko’s “provocative behaviour” during Wednesday’s hearing.
“Savchenko’s health is not cause for alarm,” it added.
– ‘Open to prisoner swap’ –
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who has called the trial a “farce” being conducted in a “kangaroo court”, said late Wednesday that he was ready to exchange prisoners with Russia to secure Savchenko’s release.
But Russia had until now not come up with “any satisfactory initiative” to arrange such a swap, he told reporters during a visit to Turkey.
In her statement, Mogherini said freeing Savchenko would be in line with Russia’s commitments under the Minsk peace agreements aimed at ending the Ukraine conflict, which stipulate that all sides should “release all hostages and detained persons”.
The Russian foreign ministry for its part repeated its stance that no swap could take place between Savchenko and Russian prisoners held by Ukrainian authorities before the trial had reached its conclusion.
Hundreds of angry Ukrainians picketed Russian diplomatic missions Wednesday in protest at Savchenko’s detention, pelting the buildings with eggs or smoke bombs and fireworks.
In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said any comments on the trial were “unacceptable.”
In a sign of the sharp criticism the case has attracted abroad, five EU member states have called for sanctions against Russian officials involved in her detention, according to Lithuania, one of those involved.
Separately, EU ambassadors meeting on Wednesday agreed to extend for a further six months until September sanctions against nearly 150 Russian and Ukrainian individuals over the conflict in Ukraine.
The bloc’s interior ministers are expected to formally approve the decision on Thursday, diplomatic sources said.