Europe

Nadiya Savchenko: Ukraine's pilot hero on Russian murder charge

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Media captionNadia Savchenko: 'Hope is the last thing to die'

Nadiya Savchenko is a hero in Ukraine. The military pilot, who says she was abducted by pro-Russian rebels and smuggled into Russia, has become a symbol of resistance at home. She has been elected an MP in her absence and awarded Ukraine's highest honour.

But in Russia, Ms Savchenko stands accused of murder. After months of what many observers are calling a show trial, she is awaiting a verdict over the death of two Russian journalists.

Prosecutors say the 34-year-old guided a Ukrainian mortar strike which hit a Russian state TV crew in June 2014. She denies being involved, and her defence team say that phone records from the day of the strike prove her innocence.

She cut a defiant figure during her trial. From the glass cage that was her dock, she swore at the judge and refused to recognise the court's authority. She became ill during a hunger strike in protest at her treatment.

Now Ms Savchenko faces a possible sentence of 23 years in a Russian prison. Her defence team has expressed concerns about her health.

Her name, Nadiya, means "hope" in Ukrainian. "Hope is the last thing to die," she said at her trial.

Golden hands

Ms Savchenko was born in Kiev in 1981, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union. She was raised, along with her younger sister Vira, in a Ukrainian-speaking household and attended the city district's only Ukrainian-speaking school.

By 16 she was determined to become a pilot, Vira told broadcaster RFE/RL. She signed up to the army, working as a radio operator before training as a paratrooper. When Ukraine sent 1,690 soldiers to support the US-led military campaign in Iraq, she was the only woman among them.

"I believe you can only become an officer after enlisting and taking part in live combat, getting the smell of gunpowder," she told a Ukrainian television reporter in Iraq in 2005.

But Ms Savchenko harboured an ambition to fly planes, rather than jump out of them. That would mean becoming the first woman accepted to Ukraine's highly-selective Air Force University in Kharkiv.

"There's an expression about people having 'golden hands' - people who, even if they don't know how to do a particular thing, can just pick it up immediately and be great at it," said Vira.

"My sister is this kind of person."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ms Savchenko was defiant throughout her trial

In 2009 Ms Savchenko graduated from the Air Force University and was posted to an army aviation regiment. Her primary duty involved navigating military helicopters but she wanted to fly fighter jets.

Her exploits brought her to the attention of Ukrainian Forces TV, which made her career the subject of a 2011 documentary. The once-obscure film has now been viewed nearly 200,000 times on YouTube.

The film includes footage of her serving in Iraq in 2005 but also highlights her other, more "feminine" interests, such as designing clothes and doing embroidery. Asked to describe what it is like to fly, she says: "I cannot explain this feeling. It is as if you are in heaven."

But when a separatist revolt broke out in eastern Ukraine, two months after the overthrow of Kiev's Moscow-backed leaders, Ms Savchenko took leave from the air force and joined a volunteer battalion to fight the rebels.

'Ambush'

On 17 June 2014, she was in the vicinity of a mortar strike that killed two Russian journalists. She says she rushed to the area because the rebels had hit two armoured personnel carriers and a tank, and she wanted to see if anyone was wounded.

She disappeared, resurfacing a week later in the southern Russian city of Voronezh as a Russian prisoner. She told a Moscow television reporter from inside her detention centre in July 2014 that she had been "ambushed" by rebels.

"This really was a kidnapping," she said. She said she was smuggled across the border, wearing a blindfold - causing international outrage at the possibility she had been abducted.

Russian investigators insist she was arrested "in strict accordance with Russian law" after entering the country illegally, disguised as a refugee.

Her defence team says her mobile phone records show she had been moved to the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk at least an hour before the Russians were killed.

Image copyright AP
Image caption There have been protests against Ms Savchenko's detention outside several Russian embassies, including Warsaw, Poland

In an unlikely electoral campaign, Ms Savchenko stood for parliament in October 2014 from a psychiatric ward in a Russian prison. Supporters hoped that success would hasten her release, but her election came and went a month later with no pardon.

In December that year, she declared a hunger strike in protest at her detention, and lost 20kg in bodyweight. She abandoned her fast after 83 days, amid serious concern for her health.

She remained in prison through January, when she was chosen to represent Ukraine in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

Then earlier this month, as her trial neared its end, she announced another hunger strike, saying she would also refuse to drink water. The hunger strike was later aborted as her health deteriorated.

In a final statement to the court, she said: "I admit no guilt and I recognise neither the court nor the verdict. If I am found guilty, I will not appeal. I want the entire democratic world to understand that Russia is a Third World country with a totalitarian regime and a petty tyrant for a dictator and it spits on international law and human rights."

If found guilty, Ms Savchenko faces a long prison term. The prospect has taken a heavy toll on her family. Her mother, Maria, appealed to world leaders this month to put pressure on Russia to release her.

"Help me, I am a 78-year-old mother," she said. "I am so nervous, I forgot what it's like to sleep. I am worried about my child. Help her be freed from that jail."