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Tajikistan Denies Political Motive Behind Russian Pilots' Sentencing

Ethnic Russian pilots Vladimir Sadovnichy (left) and Aleksei Rudenko during their trial in Tajikistan

Ethnic Russian pilots Vladimir Sadovnichy (left) and Aleksei Rudenko during their trial in Tajikistan

DUSHANBE -- Tajikistan has said that there is no political motive behind the sentencing this week of two ethnic Russian pilots on charges of smuggling and entering Tajikistan illegally, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reports.

A Tajik court on November 8 sentenced Russian citizen Vladimir Sadovnichy and Aleksei Rudenko, an ethnic Russian from Estonia, to 10 1/2 years in prison for smuggling, illegal border crossing, and violating international aviation regulations.

The sentences, in accordance with a recent Tajik amnesty, were immediately reduced by two years to 8 1/2 years each. Both pilots had pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The men had flown separate AN-72 Russian cargo planes from Afghanistan to Tajikistan on March 12. The cargo of one of the planes included a disassembled aircraft engine that was not listed on the customs declaration.

Prosecutor-General Sherkhon Salimzoda told journalists in Dushanbe on November 10 that the two pilots ignored warnings from Tajikistan's air traffic controllers and entered Tajik airspace illegally.

Salimzoda said Sadovnichy asked Tajik air traffic controllers seven times for permission to enter Tajikistan's airspace and was refused every time. He said Sadovnichy then asked for permission for an emergency landing, even at the risk the planes would be impounded.

Salimzoda said Tajik authorities decided to detain only the pilots of the two planes. They released six other crew members (two Russians, two Ukrainians, one Kazakh, and one Belarusian) on humanitarian grounds.

Salimzoda said that before the two planes took off, Afghan government officials informed Tajikistan that they had false registration numbers and were not registered in any country. They also did not have log books or air safety certificates.

Salimzoda said the investigation established that the two aircraft were removed in 2008 from the list of aircraft registered in Georgia and since then have been based in Afghanistan. He said that according to Afghan aviation authorities, the planes have not been inspected for the past three years and are no longer licensed to fly.

Salimzoda also noted that if the lawyer of two sentenced pilots appeals the verdict, the case could be retried in a higher court.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has said that Russia will wait for a reaction from the Tajik authorities before formulating a response.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich addressed the issue at a briefing on November 9.

"The charges brought against our [Russian] citizen [Vladimir Sadovnichy] and our compatriot from Estonia [ethnic Russian Aleksei Rudenko] under a whole range of Tajik laws are groundless, far-fetched, and lacking in any serious legal justification," Lukashevich said.

Lukashevich added that Russia demands the verdict handed down to Sadovnichy be reviewed. He said that Russia "will make every effort to bring him home."