QURGHONTEPPA, Tajikistan -- The prosecutor at the trial in southern Tajikistan of two pilots employed by a Russian transporter and convicted of smuggling during a purported humanitarian mission has defended the controversial sentences given to the men amid a sharp protest from Moscow, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reports.
A court in Khatlon Province sentenced Russian Vladimir Sadovnichy, 53, and Estonian citizen Aleksei Rudenko, 54, to 10 1/2 years in prison on charges of smuggling, illegally crossing the border, and violating international aviation regulations.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich slammed the sentences as politically motivated and said they could negatively affect Moscow's relations with Dushanbe. He said Tajik authorities "did not provide any convincing evidence" of the men's guilt.
Fayzullo Kholov, the prosecutor at the trial, told RFE/RL the verdict was "normal" and not politically tainted. He stressed that the two men will spend only 8 1/2 years in jail due to the terms of a recent general amnesty.
"Tajikistan is blatantly violating existing international norms," Lukashevich said. "It is also unclear what its plans are with regard to the seized airplanes. This verdict does not help strengthen our existing relationship as allied strategic partners, in fact it is damaging it seriously."
The two men flew 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.
The planes are the property of Rolkan Investment Ltd, which is registered in the British Virgin islands. Kholov said the two aircraft left Georgia in 2008. The Tajik court has confiscated them.
The two pilots pleaded not guilty to the charges. Sadovnichy said in court last week that they did not personally violate the law. He said the prosecutors should take up the issue with Rolkan Investment and release them.
The pilots' lawyer, Ghulom Boboev, said the engine parts were a reserve engine for use in case of emergency. He said there was no need to declare them to customs as they were not part of a commercial cargo.
Rolkan Investment representative Valery Pfeifer told RFE/RL that for the past three years the two pilots have been transporting primarily humanitarian aid in the form of food.