Defiant Ukrainian pilot vows to continue hunger strike

9th March 2016, Comments 0 comments

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.

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.

"Maybe I will live that long," Savchenko declared.

The judge said the verdict would be handed down on March 21 and 22.

"Here's my final word," Savchenko said, 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 the European Union and the United States issuing calls for the pilot's release.

Germany echoed those appeals on Wednesday, urging Savchenko's "immediate release" on humanitarian grounds. Berlin also warned that her trial violated "the spirit and letter of the Minsk agreement", a peace deal aimed at ending the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.

- 'Nothing to lose' -

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).

"Remember -- we are playing with my life. And I will win," Savchenko told the court. "The stakes are high and I have nothing to lose."

Her lawyers said they will not be able to persuade Savchenko to halt her hunger strike unless Russia releases her immediately or at least provide guarantees that it will do so.

"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 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," the foreign ministry added in a statement.

- 'Kangaroo court' -

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the trial a "farce" being conducted in a "kangaroo court".

"We demand Nadiya's immediate, unconditional release and her return to Ukraine," he said on Facebook.

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.

© 2016 AFP

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