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Tajik Court Frees Russian, Estonian Pilots


Pilots Aleksei Rudenko of Estonia (center, front) and Vladimir Sadovnichy of Russia (center, back) walk with guards during a break in an appeal hearing at a court in Kurgan-Tyube on November 22.
Pilots Aleksei Rudenko of Estonia (center, front) and Vladimir Sadovnichy of Russia (center, back) walk with guards during a break in an appeal hearing at a court in Kurgan-Tyube on November 22.
A Tajik regional court has set free Russian pilot Vladimir Sadovnichy and his Estonian colleague Aleksei Rudenko, whose recent sentencing on smuggling and other charges led to a diplomatic stand-off between Moscow and Dushanbe.

The Khatlon provincial court overturned a November 8 verdict by a lower court that sentenced Sadovnichy and Rudenko to 10 1/2 years in prison for flying illegally into Tajikistan smuggling aircraft parts.

The lengthy sentences, which had immediately been cut by two years in accordance with a Tajik amnesty, were heavily criticized by Russian officials, who said they were "politically motivated" and warned they would have a negative impact on bilateral relations.

The recent deportation of hundreds of Tajiks from Russia, where nearly a million are employed as seasonal laborers, was seen by observers as a Russian response to the rulings.

Technically, the Tajik court reduced the pilots' sentences to 2 1/2 years each. With the subtraction of two years under the amnesty, and six months for time served, the immediate release of the pilots was secured.

Russia's Foreign Ministry welcomed the news as "great success," Interfax news agency reported.

Sadovnichy told RFE/RL's Tajik Service after the ruling that he was "pleased" with the result. The Russian pilot also said that Tajiks living in Russia should not bear the brunt of political squabbles between Russia and Tajikistan.

He said that Tajik migrants "went to Russia because of poor conditions at home; they went there to feed their families. Sending them back home doesn't lead to anything good. I think it's very wrong."

A representative of the Russian Embassy in Dushanbe, Dmitry Kabayev, was present when the new verdict was read out. He welcomed the ruling.

"The 'guilty' verdict still stands. It's hard to fully evaluate the verdict but we are satisfied with the fact that the pilots were freed today," he said. "This is the most important thing."

Decision 'Not Political'

Sadovnichy and Rudenko were arrested in March, after they stopped their two AN-72 cargo aircraft for unauthorized refueling near the southern Tajik city of Qurghon-Teppa en route from Afghanistan to Russia.

Tajik authorities said the two pilots ignored warnings from Tajikistan's air-traffic controllers and entered Tajik airspace illegally.

The aircraft they were piloting, owned by Rolkan Investment Ltd., a private company registered in the British Virgin Islands, were confiscated by Tajik authorities. RFE/RL's Tajik Service reports that because the original court ruling still stands, the Tajik authorities have not returned the planes.

Dushanbe maintains there were no political motives behind the sentencing, but following the Russian outcry Tajik President Emomali Rahmon reportedly took a personal interest in the case.

Within days after the initial verdict had been announced, the office of the Khatlon regional prosecutor officially asked the provincial court to review the "harsh" sentencing of the pilots.

About 1 million Tajik nationals -- nearly every seventh Tajik citizen -- are engaged in seasonal jobs in Russia, and the remittances they send back to their impoverished homeland contribute greatly to Tajikistan's economy.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report
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