Hunger-striking Ukrainian pilot Nadia Savchenko has started drinking water again, reducing fears she could die in a Russian jail before the verdict in her politically charged trial is delivered later this month.
Her lawyer Mark Feigin said on Twitter on March 10 that Savchenko made the decision to tone down her hunger strike after a request from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
But Feigin later told RFE/RL’s Russian Service that a purported letter from Poroshenko he had given Savchenko turned out to be a fake. He asserted that it was orchestrated by Russian authorities in an effort to discredit Savchenko, her lawyers, and Ukraine.
Poroshenko’s office confirmed that the president had not sent Savchenko a letter.
A pair of Russian pranksters who call themselves Lexus and Vovan -- and who claimed last year that they had duped British rock star Elton John into believing he spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin on the phone -- said they were behind the hoax.
Poroshenko's spokesman, Svyatoslav Tseholko, said the Ukrainian president had "has passed his words of support to Savchenko via her sister Vira and her mother," but it was not clear whether Poroshenko had urged her to halt her hunger strike.
Savchenko had stopped drinking fluids on March 4, calling on Russian authorities to send her home to Ukraine and vowing to return "dead or alive."
Symbol Of Defiance
Now one of the most prominent figures from a war between Russia-backed separatists and government forces that has killed more than 9,100 people in eastern Ukraine and ruined ties between Moscow and Kyiv, Savchenko is regarded as a hero in her home country and a symbol of defiance against Russia.
Russian authorities accuse Savchenko, 34, of acting as a spotter who called in coordinates for a mortar attack that killed two Russian journalists during the conflict. They have charged her with murder and illegal border crossing, and state prosecutors have asked the court to to sentence her to 23 years in prison.
Savchenko says she was seized in eastern Ukraine while fighting with a volunteer battalion and illegally taken to Russia, where she has been jailed ever since and went on trial in September by force. She has repeatedly said she will not recognize the court or its verdict.
At a tense hearing on March 9 during which Savchenko raised her middle finger at the court, the judge said that he will begin announcing the verdict on March 21.
Before Feigin said that the purported letter from Poroshenko was a hoax, he posted what he said was a letter from Savchenko that she addressed to "Ukrainians and kind people around the world."
In it, she wrote that she would begin drinking water but would continue to refuse food.
"I will do everything I can to save myself for the further struggle and victories for Ukraine and for the truth," the handwritten letter said.
Rights groups and Western governments, including the United States, have called for Savchenko’s immediate release.
Ukrainians protested outside Russian consulates in several cities on March 9, in some cases pelting the buildings with eggs and other objects, and police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd in the Black Sea port city of Odesa.
Some Russians have also protested in support of Savchenko, accusing President Vladimir Putin's government of conducting a shameful and illegal show trial. Dozens of demonstrators were detained by police in Moscow on March 8.
The German government said on March 9 that Savchenko's trial "violates the spirit and letter of the Minsk agreement" -- the French- and German-brokered accord aimed to end the war in eastern Ukraine.
Fighting in eastern Ukraine has diminished under a fragile cease-fire that is part of the Minsk deal, but the separatists still control parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions and other aspects of the accord seem far from implementation.
The war followed Russia's takeover of Crimea, which came after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was pushed from power by protests over his decision to scrap plans for a landmark deal with the European Union and draw closer to Russia instead.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service, UNIAN, Twitter, Interfax, Reuters, AP, and AFP