Russian Court Finds Ukraine’s Defiant Pilot Savchenko Guilty

Nothing in the Nadiya Savchenko case has been easy or fast. The famed Ukrainian pilot whom Russia has charged with complicity in the deaths of two Russian journalists can’t even get a quick verdict at the end of a trial that has lasted nine months.

On March 22, the court found Savchenko guilty of all charges and sentenced her to twenty-two years in prison.

The verdict was a foregone conclusion. The prosecution had asked for a twenty-three year sentence and there was little doubt that she would be given any leniency. But even for this she had to wait two days. The first day of the reading of the verdict began on March 21 and lasted nearly eight hours.

In Russian courts trials end in a lengthy verdict reading process, often lasting days. The former Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s verdict was nearly three hundred pages long. The accused and all present must listen to the drone-like reading of the verdict while standing. The verdict consisted of detailed descriptions of how the two Russian journalists were killed; however, there was nothing in the text about how Savchenko was directly involved in their death, a member of the Savchenko legal team pointed out.

“We are convinced of Nadiya’s innocence and we proved that innocence,” said Savchenko’s lead lawyer Mark Feygin.

Savchenko’s defense team presented evidence showing that she had been captured by pro-Russian separatists at least an hour before the two Russian journalists were killed. In a strange twist, the Russian news agency Meduza published an interview with a separatist military commander who claims that he had captured Savchenko well before the mortar attack that led to the death of the Russian journalists.

The Savchenko trial was held in Donetsk, a small Russian town that Savchenko’s lawyer Feygin called a “hole.” Despite the city’s backwater status, many diplomats and human rights activists were present at the verdict. However, several Ukrainian members of parliament were not allowed entry to Russia for the verdict.

Savchenko and her team announced that they would not be appealing the verdict. “Shame on us that Savchenko doesn’t want to appeal because there is no such thing as a just court in Russia,” Feygin tweeted.

Savchenko’s case has attracted wide support among leading politicians and activists, who have condemned the case as a show trial and continuously called on Russia to release her.

“Today, as the Court reads out its verdict, and given the serious questions regarding the fairness of her trial and the legality of the transfer to the territory of the Russian Federation, I once again call for Nadiya Savchenko’s immediate release,” said Pedro Agramunt, President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on March 21.

Savchenko’s trial was a political show from the very beginning, tweeted German European Parliament member Rebecca Harms. “The trial is shockingly similar to the show trials of the Stalinist period,” she wrote in a statement.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite called the Savchenko trial “a farce and mockery.”

While fighting with a volunteer battalion in eastern Ukraine, Savchenko was captured by Russian-backed separatists in June 2014 and transferred to Russia where she was charged with directing mortar fire which killed Russian journalists Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin.

While in detention, Savchenko was subjected to a forensic psychiatric examination in Moscow’s infamous Serbsky Institute where Soviet authorities incarcerated and used psychological pressure to pressure dissidents.

During her incarceration, Savchenko was elected to the Ukrainian parliament in absentia and won a seat in the Ukrainian delegation of PACE.

She has been on several hunger strikes protesting the illegality of the trial and has remained steadfastly defiant and combative. After being denied her last word in court, she gave the court the finger and said she would never be broken.

Irena Chalupa is a Nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. For the 2015-2016 year, she is a Fulbright Scholar researching Soviet-era Ukrainian political prisoners.

Image: Ukrainian pilot Nadia Savchenko in the courtroom. Credit: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty