A Russian court has sentenced the 34-year-old Ukrainian helicopter pilot Nadiya Savchenko to 22 years in jail for allegedly murdering two Russian journalists working in Ukraine’s eastern provinces. She was also fined RUB30,000 ($428) for illegally crossing the border.
During his seven-hour long verdict, at the conclusion of the six-month trial, Judge Leonid Stepanenko said Savchenko had "deliberately inflicted death on two persons, acting according to a conspiracy and motivated by hatred and enmity".
In what has become a cause celebre, Savchenko has been declared a hero at home with demonstrators gathering outside the Russian embassy in Kyiv to demand her release. She has also been adopted by Westerners as a symbol of the lack of rule of law in Russia and President Vladimir Putin's aggressive policies in the region. US President Barack Obama has publicly called for a proper investigation into her case.
However, Savchenko could quickly be freed. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko indicated he is willing to cut a deal with the Kremlin and swap two Russian soldiers, Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Alexander Aleksandrov, who are held in Ukrainian prisons, for the young helicopter pilot, according to Tass reports. Russia has repeatedly denied it has any armed forces in Ukraine.
Savchenko denied both the charges and the court's authority to convict her, saying the case is politically motivated. She has refused her right to appeal and indeed, refused to speak Russian since her arrest in what Western observers have labelled a "show trial". Indeed, the media circus that has surrounded the trial, most of which has been live streamed on YouTube, has made the case a PR own goal for the Kremlin.
"The Russian investigative committee has made a huge mistake by kidnapping me and bringing me here. Because of that they now have many problems and if I die in Russia they will choke on my bones. It's high time to find a way out of the situation and come up with a responsible decision. It's time to end this circus," Savchenko said during the trial. She has been on hunger strike several times and vowed to return home to Ukraine "dead or alive".
"You can't put everyone behind bars. There will be a Maidan in Russia. Putin will not be able to keep his power on the blood of the people. All I can do is show by example that by being fearless and strong the Russian state and its totalitarian regime can be whipped into submission. And now do you want my final statement? This is my final statement! Can you see it?" she harangued the judge at the end of her statement to the court, raising her middle finger at him to emphasis the point.
The case has been derisive, pouring oil on the fire that is Russia-Ukraine relations. Amnesty International called for a full and impartial investigation this week. "The litany of dubious procedures and decisions by the presiding judge over the course of this trial shows a clear contempt for due process and suggests Nadiya never had a hope of proving her innocence," John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Director of the human rights group, said in a statement.
Kyiv has been even more outspoken, with Poroshenko's spokesman calling the trial a "farce." To complicate things, Savchenko has become a member of parliament since her incaceration.
Savchenko sat in the glass box dock during the reading of the sentence, occasionally getting up to communicate with their defenders in a court packed with journalists and Western diplomats.
She has been found guilty of being complicit in causing the deaths of two journalists from the Russian state backed station VGTRK, Igor Korneliuk and Anton Voloshin, who were hit by shells near the village of Metalist in the Luhansk region in the Donbas region last year. She is also accused of subsequently illegally crossing into Russia.
Judge Stepanenko said that the journalists' murder was committed by a group of persons "on preliminary arrangement by hatred and enmity".
Savchenko is a helicopter pilot as well as a member of the controversial Aidar volunteer militia that has been condemned by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International of abuses and possible war crimes in four separate reports. The unit was active in the support of Ukraine's regular forces during the worst of the fighting in 2015 but has since been absorbed by the army.
According to Russian prosecutors, who produced maps and notes in support of their case Savchenko directed the shells and targeted the two journalists who were standing at a roadblock. Savchenko disputes the veracity of the evidence.
The servicewoman in turn accuses Russia of kidnapping her and smuggling her into Russia in July 2014 "with a sack over her head" to act as a scapegoat for political purposes. Russian prosecutors counter that she sneaked into Russia disguised as a refugee.
Savchenko has threatened to resume a hunger strike and deny Russia the chance of imposing its sentence by starving herself to death if convicted.