A Russian court today (22 March) sentenced Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko to 22 years in jail after finding her guilty of involvement in the killing of two Russian journalists during the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.
The sentence is likely to further inflame Russia’s already dire relations with Kiev, and prompt protests from the European Union, which has called for Savchenko’s release.
Savchenko, a 34-year-old who has become a national hero at home in Ukraine, was defiant as the verdict was read out, singing the Ukrainian national anthem while standing on a bench.
She has denied having anything to do with the deaths of the journalists.
Russian officials have signaled that, once the trial is over, they may be open to negotiations about handing Savchenko over to Ukraine, possibly as part of a prisoner exchange. Kiev is holding at least two people it says are serving Russian soldiers seized on the battlefield in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin wrote on Twitter: “The result is an expected one, but all the same it’s pretty painful … The ‘sentence’ is not the end of struggle. It’s the beginning of a new stage in the fight for Savchenko.”
The judge, between shouted interruptions from Savchenko who was dressed in a T-shirt bearing the Ukrainian trident, a state symbol, dismissed arguments from her lawyers she could not have been involved in killing the journalists.
“The evidence provided by the prosecution side is trustworthy and completely disproves the theory of the defence about Savchenko’s innocence,” the judge said.
He said the court had decided “to select as the final punishment for Savchenko 22 years of confinement of liberty with a fine of 30,000 rubles ($442.28).”
Asked by the judge if she understood the sentence, Savchenko stood on a bench in the cage where she was being kept and began singing the Ukrainian national anthem. Her supporters in the courtroom joined the singing and tried to unfurl a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag, before security staff bundled them out.
Savchenko, who had taken leave from her job as a military pilot to volunteer with Ukraine’s ground forces fighting against the separatists in eastern Ukraine, was captured by pro-Moscow rebels there in June 2014.
She was handed over to Russia where she was charged with directing mortar fire which killed the two Russian journalists, who were covering the conflict.
She has repeatedly gone on hunger strike, and from the glass and metal cage where she has been held in the courtroom, has often shouted her view that she is the victim of a show trial aimed at humiliating Ukraine.
In her absence, she was elected a member of the Ukrainian parliament.
However Russian officials, and state television, have depicted Savchenko as a dangerous nationalist with the blood of civilians on her hands.