Europe

Savchenko trial: Calls grow for release of Ukraine pilot

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Media captionUkrainian pilot Nadia Savchenko gave a defiant statement in her final court appearance, as Sarah Rainsford reports from Donetsk

Western politicians have urged Russia to release Ukrainian officer Nadiya Savchenko, who is on trial in Russia.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said she should be freed "immediately and unconditionally".

Meanwhile, the US envoy to the UN, Samantha Power described the trial in southern Russia as "farcical".

Ms Savchenko, who is on hunger strike, is accused of directing mortar fire that killed two Russian journalists in Ukraine in 2014 - a claim she denies.

The 34-year-old, who is also a member of the Ukrainian parliament, was captured two years ago while fighting pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Nadiya Savchenko

"This is no longer just a judicial or political case: now it's a matter of human compassion," Ms Mogherini said on Wednesday.

She added that Ms Savchenko's release would be in line with Moscow's commitments under the Minsk peace deal, which is aimed at ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Also on Friday, Ms Power said: "She [Savchenko] belongs back in Ukraine, working alongside her colleagues in the Rada (parliament) to build a better future for her country.

"We call on Russia to release her at once," the US ambassador added, urging Russia to also free "all Ukrainians who are being held illegally by separatists and by Russia".

Meanwhile, Ukrainian Foreign Ministry official Oleksiy Makeyev said more than 20 foreign nations were demanding Ms Savchenko's release.

More than 4,300 people, including Nobel prize-winner Svitlana Aleksievich, have signed an open letter urging European leaders to act to secure her freedom.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters that negotiations on any decision concerning Ms Savchenko's would not happen until the court's ruling.

Ms Zakharova also accused the West of trying to put pressure on the judges in the Russian town of Donetsk and influence the case's outcome.

Earlier in the day, Ms Savchenko defied the court, vowing to continue a hunger strike. She made an obscene gesture at judges during her closing statement.

Speaking Ukrainian, Ms Savchenko, who said he had not had food and drink since Friday, said the judges proved that Russians were "fascists".

A translator read out her formal, final statement in which she proclaimed her innocence and described her trial as a "farce".

A verdict in the case is due to be delivered on 21 and 22 March but her lawyers have said she will not survive that long unless she is force-fed.

The prosecutors have asked for a 23-year prison term.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a visit by Ukrainian doctors to assess Ms Savchenko was now "impossible" because of her behaviour in the court.


Drama in court - Sarah Rainsford, BBC News, at the scene

Image copyright EPA

This was a brief hearing but a dramatic one. Despite five days refusing food and water, by her own account, Nadiya Savchenko walked into court herself and stood throughout - her cage surrounded by armed guards.

When she spoke, her voice was strong - and angry. At one point she leaped on to the bench and showed the three judges her middle finger - a furious demonstration of what she thinks of Russian justice.

Her formal statement was read by a translator, in which she called President Vladimir Putin a "tyrant" and her trial a "farce" directed by the Kremlin.

Some supporters had brought yellow flowers, to match the Ukrainian flag, and as the judges left to consider their verdict over the next 12 days, Nadiya Savchenko stood with her hand on her heart leading them and her relatives in a passionate verse of the Ukrainian national anthem.

She vowed to keep up her hunger strike until she is returned home. But outside court, her lawyers warned that she would not live that long unless she was force-fed.

How Savchenko became a symbol of resistance


Ms Savchenko was captured in the summer 2014 at the height of the fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.

A pioneering female combat pilot in the Ukrainian air force, where she held the rank of lieutenant, she had enlisted in a volunteer infantry unit, the Aidar Battalion.

Image caption Ms Savchenko's mother said she had tried to dissuade her daughter from her hunger strike, but to no avail

She is charged with acting as an artillery spotter and directing the bombardment of a rebel checkpoint, in which two Russian state TV journalists, Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin, were killed.

Ms Savchenko says she was kidnapped by rebel fighters at least an hour before the attack in which the Russian journalists were killed, and later handed over to the Russian authorities.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Security was tight outside Russia's embassy in Kiev on Wednesday as Savchenko supporters gathered
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Supporters brandished posters of Ms Savchenko, calling her a "hero"

Russian prosecutors say she secretly crossed into Russian territory herself.

Relations between Russia and Ukraine - along with its Western allies - have deteriorated since the events of 2014 in Ukraine.

Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula that March after an unrecognised referendum on self-determination, and is accused of covertly supporting the rebels in the bloody conflict which later divided eastern Ukraine.

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