Nadiya Savchenko trial: Questions and answers

Ukrainian military pilot Nadezhda Savchenko.

Ukrainian military pilot Nadezhda Savchenko.

Reuters
On March 21, a Russian court will begin announcing the verdict against Ukrainian pilot and servicewoman Nadiya Savchenko, who mysteriously reappeared in detention in Russia in summer 2014 after vanishing in eastern Ukraine. RBTH presents a brief Q&A account of the controversial trial.

Who is Nadiya Savchenko?

Savchenko is a first lieutenant of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, as well as deputy of the Ukrainian Parliament (she was elected to parliament when she was already in pre-trial detention). Savchenko has been in custody in Russia since July 2014, yet it is not entirely clear how she ended up on Russian territory, since Russia is officially not a party to the war in Ukraine.

What is she accused of?

According to investigators, Savchenko was involved in the deaths of two Russian journalists of the VGTRK television company – Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin – who were killed in the east of Ukraine in the summer of 2014. She was allegedly a spotter during the shelling of a rebel checkpoint where the journalists were located.
She has also been charged with illegally crossing the Russian-Ukrainian border under the guise of a refugee and without papers. Russian investigators claim that she did so to flee from the militia of the Lugansk People's Republic (LNR). According to the Russian version of events, Savchenko was detained in Russia, in the Voronezh Region.
The evidence of her guilt includes the testimony of numerous witnesses from the Russian-backed LNR military, who participated in the battle and captured the pilot. Also, the prosecutor's office claims that Savchenko once admitted in an interview that she was directing artillery fire at the checkpoint where the Russian journalists were (she allegedly later refuted these words). State prosecutors have asked for the Ukrainian pilot to be sentenced to 23 years in prison (the maximum possible penalty for women for serious crimes in Russia is 25 years).

What is the position of Savchenko's defense?

Savchenko does not admit her guilt, while her defense insists on her acquittal. The lawyers argued in court that she had an alibi – at the time of the shelling of the journalists, Savchenko was already a captive of the militia near Lugansk and then they smuggled her across the border and handed over to the Russian security services.
According to the defense, this is confirmed by phone billing data and a video recording made by one of the militias. It shows Savchenko in detention, while the video was made prior to the deaths of the journalists. The lawyers believe that the case has been fabricated, and after the verdict Savchenko will be able to be exchanged for Russian citizens on trial in Ukraine. During her time in prison, Savchenko has repeatedly declared a hunger strike in protest. On March 4, she began a dry hunger strike and promised to continue it until she is returned to Ukraine.

Why is Savchenko being tried in Russia, and not Ukraine?

As Yevgeny Korchagov, a representative of advocates Starinsky, Korchagov & Partners, explained to RBTH, Russian law allows foreign citizens who have committed crimes outside the borders of the Russian Federation to be subject to legal responsibility, if the crime was committed against the interests of Russia or a Russian citizen.
The defense submitted a request for domestic arrest (the Ukrainian diplomatic corps was willing to provide her with an apartment on the grounds of the embassy in Russia), but the court listened to the arguments of the investigation and rejected the request. The investigation claimed that Savchenko might be able to hide from justice in Ukraine, and furthermore posseses a weapon and fighting skills and could interfere with the investigation.

What do Ukraine and the West think about the Savchenko case?

The case has been harshly criticized by the international political elite. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko describes the trial of the servicewoman as a "farce" which violates international law and believes that Russia should "immediately, without any conditions," return her to Ukraine.
Washington and the European Union directly link the Savchenko case with the Minsk agreements. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said a day before the hearing that her trial demonstrates "disregard for international standards, as well as for Russia’s commitments under the Minsk agreements."
In connection with this case, 57 ministers of the European Parliament have demanded sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin and 28 other individuals, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) refuses to return powers to the Russian delegation until Savchenko is freed.

What do the Minsk agreements have to do with it?

The Minsk peace agreements on the settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine contain a point about the commitment to release prisoners of war and illegally detained individuals (hostages), according to Yevgeny Minchenko, director of the Moscow-based International Institute for Political Expertise.
However, he claims that "technically, Savchenko as a defendant in the criminal case of a murder does not belong to either of them," while the agreements concern only Ukraine and the unrecognized republics. Therefore, the exchange of her for prisoners of war from Kiev is legally impossible.

How can the Savchenko case be used for political ends?

The trial of Savchenko has hardly anything to do with U.S. sanctions against Russia. They were introduced on different grounds – what the United States sees as the illegal annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation.
However, according to Dmitry Danilov, head of the European Security Department of the Institute of Europe at the Russian Academy of Sciences, the politicization of the case is "another excuse to form a package of accusations [of disrupting the Minsk agreements] against Moscow," or to use it in other conflict issues.

What are the chances that Russia will make concessions with regard to the Ukrainian pilot?

According to Russian experts, the chance is almost zero. Given the severity of the charges, as well as the high profile of the case, the Savchenko trial has become a matter of principle for Moscow, making a lenient sentence out of the question.
"Russia, like any self-respecting state, must show that it does not bow to open external pressure," said Alexei Zudin, political scientist and member of the advisory board of the Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies.

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