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Rights activists, EU, US slam Russian trial of Ukrainian pilot

media The Ukrainian military pilot, Nadiya Savchenko, accused of killing two Russian journalists in eastern Ukraine Reuters/Maxim Zmeyev

As Russian news agencies prematurely reported that Ukranian pilot Nadiya Savchenko had been found guilty of murder, human rights activists and foreign powers slammed the trial of the 34-year-old, who was captured by pro-Russian rebels nearly two years ago.

The trial of Nadiya Savchenko
Analysis of the Russian trial of Ukrainian pilot, Nadiya Savchenko 21/03/2016 - by Karen Burke Listen

Russian news agencies reported a guilty verdict before a judge had finished reading the verdict on the charges that Savchenko had killed two Russian state TV journalists in eastern Ukraine.

The announcement resulted in immediate criticism from around the world, with Germany branding the conviction "a breach of the rule of law".

The United States and the European Union have slammed the trial of Savchenko as a "political sham".

Savchenko is a 34-year-old Ukrainian pilot who is also a member of the Ukrainian parliament.

She says she was kidnapped by rebel fighters at least an hour before an attack that killed two Russian journalists in June 2014 and has repeatedly gone on hunger strike in protest over her detention, vowing to return to Ukraine "dead or alive".

“It’s probably the most high-profile case in Russia today," Rachel Denbar, the deputy director for Europe and central Asia at Human Rights Watch, told RFI from Moscow. "And one of the reasons we’ve been following it is that it’s been very high profile. We’ve also been following the cases of several other Ukrainian nationals in Russia who did not get a fair trial, like the film maker, Oleg Sentsov.”

Kiev wants prisoner swap

With few people doubting that Savchenko would be found guilty, and Kiev pushing for a prisoner swap ahead of the trial, prosecutors were demanding that the combat helicopter navigator should serve a 23-year jail term.

“Normally in these situations we would call for an appeal court to examine allegations of procedural violations during the trial but here the defence is very clearly and resolutely not going to appeal a guilty verdict," Denbar commented.

“The chairman of Russia’s human rights committee has said that, once the sentence enters into force, then he is hoping that she can be exchanged under the Minsk agreements.”

On Monday, Marina Poroshenko, the wife of the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, appealed to America's first lady Michelle Obama to join the international campaign to secure Savchenko's release.

“It certainly seems quite unlikely that Savchenko is responsible or at least responsible in the way the Russian authorities are claiming," Eleanor Bindman, a Russian expert at Queen Mary University in London, told RFI.

“In a sense, it almost doesn’t really matter because when you have a high-profile trial like this in Russia it’s not necessarily all that pertinent in terms of what happened on the ground."

Savchenko joined the Ukrainian army in 2003 and became a paratrooper; a position that made her the only female combat soldier among the 1,690 people Kiev sent to support the US-led military campaign in Iraq.

Bindman said that the notoriety of the Savchenko case could be attributed to a number of factors.

"It’s partly the fact that she is a woman and that’s different to some of the previous cases," she explained.

"It’s a contentious case in that she was accused of murders of Russian citizens, whereas previous cases tended to be more about treason; using and selling state secrets. But also she has been very outspoken in terms of defending herself, in terms of how she’s engaged with process. And then there’s the fact that she went on hunger strike a number of times.”

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