Judge begins to deliver verdict in Ukrainian pilot trial

AP News
Posted: Mar 21, 2016 6:55 AM
Judge begins to deliver verdict in Ukrainian pilot trial

DONETSK, Russia (AP) — A Russian court on Monday began reading a verdict for Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko, who is charged with complicity to murder two Russian journalists in war-torn eastern Ukraine.

The judge quoted arguments by prosecutors who said Savchenko, who served in a volunteer Ukrainian battalion at the time, called in the coordinates for shelling that killed the two journalists and several civilians in July 2014. He also quoted them as saying she was driven by "political hatred" toward residents of Ukraine's Luhansk region.

The judge in the trial quoted the prosecution saying that Savchenko was part of a "criminal group" and aimed to kill an "unlimited number of people."

Prosecutors have asked for a 23-year prison sentence for Savchenko. Sentencing is expected on Tuesday.

Speaking to reporters during a break on Monday, Savchenko's lawyer Mark Feygin said the Ukrainian is determined to go on hunger strike and stop drinking water in 10 days' time unless she is extradited to Ukraine.

Speculation persists that Moscow could agree to exchange her for two Russians captured in eastern Ukraine and alleged to be active-duty soldiers despite Russia's persistent denial that it has sent troops or equipment to bolster the rebels. Russian officials have insisted that they would not even discuss a possible prisoner swap before the verdict is in.

Fighting between Russia-backed separatists and government troops in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 9,100 people and left the rebel-held areas isolated from the rest of Ukraine.

Midway into the trial the judge turned down her lawyers' plea to ask the cell-phone company to trace her calls on the day of the mortar attack that should prove that she was a few kilometers (miles) away from there.

The Savchenko case has attracted strong criticism from the West and is an open wound for Ukraine, which says she was captured by Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine and turned over to Russia, and therefore should be treated as a prisoner of war.

Although a military pilot, Savchenko was fighting in the Aydar volunteer battalion against the rebels when was captured by the separatists in July 2014 before she surfaced in Russia. Moscow insists she escaped from the rebels and was captured after crossing the border by herself.

The Ukrainian government has protested against Savchenko's arrest, saying she should be treated as a prisoner of war and released under the current truce for eastern Ukraine. Prosecutors asked the court to sentence her to 23 years in prison.

A group of Ukrainian officials traveling to the border town of Donetsk where Savchenko is on trial was stopped by Russian border guards and detained for three hours. One of the officials, presidential envoy for peace settlement in eastern Ukraine Iryna Gerashchenko, was refused entry and barred from visiting Russia for five years, presidential spokesman Svyatoslav Tsegolko said.

The European Union and U.S. President Barack Obama have called for Savchenko's immediate release, but Russian officials had dismissed such calls as attempts to interfere with the country's internal affairs.

Savchenko, who often wears Ukrainian costume in the courtroom, has been openly contemptuous of the judge and prosecutors, denouncing them as "idiots" and raising her middle finger in defiance. She went on an 83-day hunger strike while in detention, then began another this month when the court delayed the reading of the verdict.


Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.


This story has been corrected to show that Savchenko has not been found guilty. The judge, quoting prosecutors, said Savchenko was complicit in the killing, but stopped short of pronouncing her guilty. A verdict will come at the end of the verdict-reading process, which is expected to take two days.