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Fate of Nadiya Savchenko, jailed Ukrainian air force pilot, in hands of Kremlin, say lawyers

"I am a soldier. You are treating me like a murderer," jailed Ukrainian air force pilot Nadyia Savchenko told a court in Donetsk, Russia, on Monday when her trial on charges of directing a fatal attack on two Russian journalist resumed. The 34-year-old has been detained for 18 months, and her lawyers say she has no chance of a fair trial in Russia.

34-year-old is accused of directing mortar attack on 2 Russian journalists killed in Ukraine in June 2014

Nadiya Savchenko testifies Monday in her trial in Donetsk, Russia, where she has been charged with complicity in the deaths of two Russian journalists. 'I am a soldier. You are treating me like a murderer,' she told the court. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Nadiya Savchenko is testifying today in a case that has become a potent symbol in the war between Ukraine and pro-Russia separatist rebels.

Russian investigators have charged the Ukrainian air force pilot with complicity in the 2014 deaths of two Russian journalists, which she denies.

"I am a soldier," she told the court in Donetsk, Russia, Monday. "You are treating me like a murderer." 

The 34-year-old lieutenant testified for more than four hours, much of it a monologue about her military history and her movements on June 17, 2014, the day of the fatal mortar attack.

"I ask that you listen to me carefully, don't interrupt me and don't shut me up, because each of my words will have significance for this court," she said, addressing the judge.

"Every single word I speak here will be the truth. I am again asking for a lie detector test that will be further proof of my truth, but you will again refuse me this."

There were few interruptions from her legal team during her testimony and almost no questions from the prosecutors. This was her stage: a glass cage with open slats that she spoke through.

Phone records key to timeline

Savchenko's lawyers are expected to introduce evidence that mobile-phone monitoring by Ukraine's special forces picked up conversations from pro-Russia separatists on the day of the attack, at 10:46 a.m., reporting that they had captured a female sniper.

Nadiya Savchenko struggles to trace her June 17, 2014, movements on a map from inside the glass witness box, as two of her lawyers, Nicholay Polozov, left, and Ilya Novikov, listen in court. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

TV journalists Anton Voloshin and Igor Kornelyuk were killed later that morning, closer to noon, near Luhansk, eastern Ukraine. Therefore, Savchenko's lawyers argue, she couldn't have been involved in co-ordinating the mortar attack as she was already in the hands of the rebels.

Still, despite what they think is solid proof that Savchenko was not involved, her lawyers, two of whom defended the punk rock band Pussy Riot against charges stemming from their performance of a song critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin, do not expect her to get a fair trial.

'ThisDonetskcourt, it has no power to acquitSavchenko.…This decision will be taken by the Kremlin.'- Mark Feygin, attorney for Nadiya Savchenko

"This Donetsk court, it has no power to acquit Savchenko," said attorney Mark Feygin outside court Monday. "They don't have that power, and no one will give them that power — even in front of all the evidence that she is innocent. … 

"This decision will be taken by the Kremlin, and the Kremlin will decide what is in their political interests and not for justice in their court of law and fairness, which is supposed to exists in these places."

Savchenk also strongly voiced her opposition to the judicial process that will determine her fate.

'No matter how hard the Russian Federation tries to push their propaganda, the truth will ultimately come out,' says Vera Savchenko. She travelled 900 kilometres from Kyiv to be present at her sister's trial in Donetsk, Russia. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

"I don't believe you have a right to try me and certainly not in a Russian court. This court is criminal," she said during her testimony Monday.

The trial is taking place 1,000 kilometres from Moscow, which Savchenko's lawyers say is proof that Russian authorities want her case kept out of the public eye, even thought it will be Moscow who makes the ultimate decision, said Ilya Novikov, a member of Savchenko's legal team.

"Here in Russia, we like show trials. [It's] almost a tradition since Stalin's era," Novikov said. "This verdict is not to be written by the judges. It's already [been] written in Moscow."

'I see my sister. I don't see the cage.- Vera Savchenko

But on Monday, Russian and Ukrainian media — as well as CBC — were given access to the proceedings and were allowed to film Savchenko and her lawyers, although not the prosecutors or the judge. Four balaclava-clad, armed, Russian special forces officers kept a close eye on the media.

Throughout her various court hearings and trial appearances over the 18 months that she has been detained, Savchenko has often worn traditional Ukrainian blouses — in a gesture of defiance — and she did so again on Monday. 

Her sister, Vera, drove the 900 kilometres from Kyiv to attend the trial.

Savchenko's mother, Maria, centre, rallies, demanding the liberation of her daughter near the presidential administration headquarters in Kyiv. Savchenko, who was fighting with a volunteer battalion of government troops against pro-Russia separatist rebels at the time of her arrest, faces up to 25 years in jail if she is found guilty of complicity in the killing of the journalists and of crossing into Russia illegally. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

"I see my sister. I don't see the cage," she said outside the court. "No matter how hard the Russian Federation tries to push their propaganda, the truth will ultimately come out. That brings me calm watching over Nadiya." 

The families of the two Russian journalists did not attend Monday's proceedings.

7th week of 2nd hunger strike

Savchenko has been vocal in court in the past, yelling "Lies!" at the prosecutors. That fiery spirit is probably what has kept her alive. She is starving herself to protest what she believes is a trumped-up case that Russia cannot lose. 

Hunger is my only weapon in the fight against the outrageous actions oftheRussian authorities.- Nadiya Savchenko

In prison for a year and a half now, first in Moscow then in Rostov-on-Don, in southern Russia, Savchenko is in the seventh week of a hunger strike, taking only fluids. Her first hunger strike last winter in Moscow nearly killed her.

"Hunger is my only weapon in the fight against the outrageous actions of the Russian authorities," she said in a letter released by her lawyer.  

Throughout her ordeal, Savchenko has been called both a "hero of Ukraine" and a "daughter of the devil" — as well as plenty of other names. 

Nicholay Polozov, one of the lawyers representing Nadiya Savchenko, speaks to his client in court on Monday. Savchenko testified for four hours, mostly describing her military history and her movements on June 17, 2014, the day of the fatal mortar attack. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Her controversial trial, which began last July, resumed this week and is taking place a mere 10 kilometres from Russia's border with Ukraine and about 200 kilometres east of the other Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, which has been at the centre of a nearly two-year-old war between pro-Russia separatists and the Ukrainian army.

Heated battle preceded capture

Savchenko's journey to the courtroom in the small Russian town of Donetsk has been as twisted and loaded with claims and counterclaims as any spy novel.
Savchenko, right, graduated from Ukraine Air Force University in Kharkiv in 2009, one of only a few women in the air force. In 2011, the Ukraine Defence Forces made a 20-minute documentary about Savchenko and her military career. (Vera Savchenko)

She was among the protestors in Maidan, Kyiv's central square, in 2013 during the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych. In the summer of 2014, she took a week's leave from her regular job as a helicopter navigator and pilot to help train a volunteer battalion fighting along with Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine.

Fighting between Ukrainian nationalists and pro-Russian separatists in the region was intense that summer. According to her lawyers, on June 17, 2014, Savchenko went to the aid of some wounded fighters who had been caught in an ambush. Her sister helped transport several of the wounded to safety in her car, leaving Nadiya behind.

Savchenko's legal team speaks to reporters outside the court in Donetsk. Russian authorities provided relatively open access to the courtroom for Russian and foreign media on Monday, but Savchenko's lawyers said that the aim of holding the trial 1,000 kilometres outside of Moscow was to keep it out of the public eye. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

When her sister returned, Savchenko was gone. Vera made several frantic calls to Savchenko's cellphhone, fearing she had been killed. Eventually, she said, a man's voice answered and said "slaughterhouse," and it was clear to her then that Savchenko had been captured by rebels. 

Later, a cellphone video, believed to be taken with Savchenko's phone, was released by the rebels. It shows her chained to a metal chair being interrogated.

"Who is targeting us?" asks one of the rebels, repeatedly.

"All of Ukraine," she replies cooly.

U.S., Canada condemn detention

The same day as her capture, three journalists from Russian state broadcaster VGTRK were caught up in shelling near Luhansk, and two of them — Voloshin and Kornelyuk — died. (Russian authorities allege it was a Ukrainian mortar that killed the two and that Savchenko provided the co-ordinates that allowed Ukrainian forces to locate the journalists.)

Throughout her 18-month detention, Savchenko has often taken to wearing traditional Ukrainian blouses during court appearances as a gesture of defiance to Russian authorities. (The Associated Press)

Savchenko's family says that two weeks later, they discovered she had been driven across the border to Russia.

"They put a stinky bag over her head and transported her in six different cars," Savchenko's mother, Maria, told media in February 2015.

Moving a prisoner of war across international borders is prohibited by international law, but Russia contends Savchenko snuck into Russia pretending to be a refugee and was arrested on Russian soil.

Igor Kornelyuk, 37, a correspondent with the state-owned Russian TV station VGTRK, died in a mortar attack in eastern Ukraine along with colleague Anton Voloshin, also of Rossiya TV. Russian authorities allege Savchenko helped Ukrainian forces target the journalists, but Western countries such as Canada and the U.S. have dismissed the allegation as baseless. (Rossiya Television/Associated Press)

In the super-charged atmosphere of 2014, with the downing of Flight MH17 in Ukraine — and the finger pointing at Russia, Savchenko became a cause célèbre for Ukrainians.

Activists started a "Free Savchenko" blog on Facebook. The Ukrainian activist group Voices of Ukraine, which grew out of the Maidan protest movement and focuses on providing news about Ukraine in English and other languages, translated Savchenko's letters from prison.

"One of the fronts of this war is words and propaganda, so the only way to  counter it is getting the truth out there," said Sophia Isajiw, founding editor of Voices Ukraine, speaking from Toronto. 

In a recent letter, Savchenko wrote "I'm alive and free as long as I act and I don't sit here. I keep fighting."

Savchenko as symbol

A young, female military pilot is novel enough; by 2015, Savchenko was being labelled Joan of Arc, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko awarded her the country's highest award for bravery. She was elected in absentia to Ukraine's parliament.

Sound engineer Anton Voloshin died along with Kornelyuk in the mortar attack. VGTRK cameraman Viktor Denisov survived the attack. (Rossiya Television/Associated Press)

Her case has garnered attention across Europe and North America, including in Canada.

"Canada and this house should join our American and European allies and pass a resolution demanding Nadiya's immediate return to Ukraine," said then Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland, who is now minister of international trade. 

The U.S. State Department similarly called on Russia to drop what it called its "baseless case" against Savchenko.

A new ceasefire agreement between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russia separatists was signed in Minsk in February 2015. In April of last year, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, reiterated the need to fully implement the deal and said the EU expects "the urgent release of all hostages, including Nadiya Savchenko." 

Nevertheless, Russia is proceeding with all charges against her. There has been talk of political negotiations to secure her release, but some Russia watchers suggest no deal could be reached until Russia has prosecuted a guilty verdict. 


Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.