Russia court hands Ukraine pilot Savchenko 22-year sentence

22nd March 2016, Comments 0 comments

A Russian court on Tuesday sentenced Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko to 22 years in prison over the killing of two Russian journalists in a ruling set to fuel Moscow's feud with Kiev and the West.

Judge Leonid Stepanenko found the 34-year-old combat helicopter navigator guilty of involvement in the fatal 2014 shelling of the Russian state TV reporters in east Ukraine, in a widely-expected verdict.

Ukraine's pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko immediately offered to swap Savchenko for two suspected Russian soldiers currently on trial in Kiev.

Crop-haired Savchenko -- who has become a national hero in her homeland and elected to parliament in absentia -- reacted to the sentence by shouting in Ukrainian and singing the Ukrainian national anthem.

The pilot -- who was fighting in a pro-Kiev militia group against rebels in east Ukraine -- insists she was kidnapped by rebel fighters before the journalists were killed in June 2014 and illegally smuggled to Russia.

Kiev and its Western allies see Savchenko's case as a political show trial that is part of Moscow's broader aggression against Ukraine, and both Brussels and Washington have called for her immediate release.

The guilty verdict over the deaths of journalists Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin had long been considered a foregone conclusion and Kiev has been pushing for a prisoner swap to free Savchenko.

"Putin has said that after the so-called sentence, he will return Nadiya Savchenko to Ukraine," Poroshenko said in a statement.

"The time to keep promises has come. I, in turn, am ready to hand over to Russia two Russian servicemen detained on our territory for their involvement in the armed aggression against Ukraine," he said.

Kiev says the two men --Captain Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Sergeant Aleksander Aleksandrov -- were members of an elite Russian military intelligence unit helping rebels in east Ukraine.

Russia has given little indication it is willing to play ball and insists the two servicemen were "volunteers" and not on active duty.

- 'No appeal' -

Savchenko's lawyer Nikolai Polozov told journalists after the sentencing that she would "not appeal this illegal verdict" in which the pilot was also found guilty of illegally crossing the border into Russia and the attempted murder of civilians.

"She is an iron person -- she has an iron will," Polozov said.

Savchenko has threatened to start refusing all fluids 10 days after the sentencing in a bid to force her release in the latest of a series of hunger strikes she has staged since her arrest.

Throughout her detention, she has struck a defiant pose and was sent to a psychiatric hospital near Moscow before being transferred to the Russian town of Donetsk near the Ukraine border for her trial.

She has ridiculed the court from the defendant's cage and flashed her middle finger at judges earlier this month as her trial ended.

Rights groups have also slammed the trial.

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

"There should be justice for the deaths of Kornelyuk and Voloshin, but justice won't be served by an unfair trial that was highly politicised from the start."

The verdict looks set to refocus some Western attention on Ukraine after Moscow broke out of international isolation over its role in the conflict there with its military intervention in Syria.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier are to fly in to Moscow on Wednesday and, while the focus for Kerry at least is likely to be Syria, Savchenko's fate looks set to be raised.

© 2016 AFP

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