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Ukraine

Ukrainian Pilot's Trial Adjourned Amid Furious Exchanges

Jailed Ukrainian  pilot Nadia Savchenko in court during a hearing on March 3.
Jailed Ukrainian pilot Nadia Savchenko in court during a hearing on March 3.
By Farangis Najibullah

The fiery, closing arguments in the high-profile case of a female Ukrainian military pilot accused of complicity in the deaths of two Russian journalists will be heard another day.

Court proceedings in a Russian military court on March 3 were punctuated by angry exchanges between the defendant, Nadia Savchenko, and the judge and prosecutors before the session was adjourned until March 9. 

"Until March 9?! That's not according to the plan," Savchenko said in response to the adjournment. "I repeat -- I am going to go on a 'dry' hunger strike as of tomorrow if you do not allow me to make my final statement."

Going into the day, observers of the case were anticipating an impassioned final statement from the 34-year-old military pilot, who attended the hearings in traditional Ukrainian dress. 

Savchenko has conducted multiple hunger strikes during the course of her 20-month detention and is currently refusing food until the end of her trial. A relative had announced on March 1 that Savchenko would refuse water as well -- a "dry" hunger strike that could lead to death within days -- if she were not returned home within 10 days after the verdict. 

Prosecutors say Savchenko was acting as a spotter for a Ukrainian volunteer unit fighting separatist forces in eastern Ukraine when she directed mortar fire that killed two Russian journalists on June 17, 2014. She is also accused of illegally crossing the border into Russia, where prosecutors claim she was captured. Prosecutors are calling for Savchenko to be fined 100,000 rubles ($1,350) and sentenced to 23 years in prison.

Savchenko denies the charges and her defense team, while presenting its final arguments to the Rostov Oblast court, accused Moscow of subjecting Savchenko to a show trial.

"From the very beginning, it was clear that if this case reached the courtroom it would be a show trial," defense lawyer Ilya Novikov told the military court in Russia's southwestern Rostov Oblast. "As for the charges, they are false and you all know it very well."
 
Savchenko's defense team argues that she was captured by separatists before the deadly mortar strike and was smuggled across the border to Russia.

Savchenko and her lawyer Ilya Novikov during the March 3 hearing.
Savchenko and her lawyer Ilya Novikov during the March 3 hearing.

Defense lawyer Novikov told the court on March 3 that "Savchenko's guilt has not been proven."

"We have an alibi," he said, citing records of the pilot's mobile-phone calls that showed she was in separatist custody when All-Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting Network journalists Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin were killed.
 
Another defense lawyer, Mark Feigin, said Savchenko had no reason to enter Russian territory.
 
No one from the prosecution was able to explain why Savchenko would suddenly decide to go to Russia, Feigin said.

The lawyer argued that Russia had no right to keep Savchenko in custody because the pilot, who serves in absentia as a Ukrainian representative to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, has diplomatic immunity.

Savchenko, who was elected to the Ukrainian parliament in October 2014, listened to her defense team argue her case as she sat in the dock behind bars, occasionally disagreeing demonstratively.

At one point, she furiously railed against the prosecution. 

"You are sitting here telling those who still believe you in Russia that you were right to charge me?" she said. "No one believes you anymore [even in Russia]. You have totally screwed up!"

At another point, when the judge commented on the inappropriate demonstration of evidence by the defense team, Savchenko stood up to protest. 

"Listen, court, I urge you, I don't happen to think that I should merely be slandered by prosecutors in this room. You did not want to see [the evidence] in due time -- you simply banned it," she said. "You have been refusing to hear about and see it for half a year, and now you are preventing me from defending myself on the last day [of the trial]?"

The judge ordered Savchenko not to interrupt and threatened to remove her from the courtroom if her outbursts continued.

Kyiv has argued that the charges against Savchenko are trumped up and that she should be treated as a prisoner of war.

Lawyer Novikov said early during the proceedings that the defense would not appeal the verdict "but not because Savchenko is guilty." Novikov said that a verdict of not guilty "would make history," but told the judge he didn't expect him to rule in Savchenko's favor.
 
Savchenko's lawyers are wary of a lesser sentence than the 23 years sought, because they believe a lighter sentence could be appealed by prosecutors. 

With reporting by Reuters, AP, TASS, and Interfax, live streaming

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