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Savchenko 'Not Complaining' About Detention -- But Nearly Everyone Else Is

Nadiya Savchenko as she was last seen -- coolly deflecting questions from a separatist fighter while handcuffed to a metal pipe.
Nadiya Savchenko as she was last seen -- coolly deflecting questions from a separatist fighter while handcuffed to a metal pipe.

Nadiya Savchenko, the Ukrainian military pilot kidnapped by separatist rebels and transferred to a Russian jail, is said to be in good condition as she enters her fifth week of captivity.

The 33-year-old helicopter navigator, whom Moscow has accused of complicity in the deaths of two Russian journalists caught in a mortar attack in eastern Ukraine, is now being held a detention center in the southwestern Russian city of Voronezh.

Visitors say she is being kept alone in a four-person cell with a private toilet, soap and hot water, food, and reading materials.

Anatoly Malakhov, who heads an observation mission for the rights organization Russia Without Torture, says Savchenko's only requests have been for coffee, cigarettes, and extra shoes and clothes in her size.

"If they were treating her badly, she'd be cowed, beaten down," says Malakhov, a Lutheran minister. "I've seen her, and she's acting perfectly normally. She speaks to us in Russian. When she was asked if anyone was physically abusing her or otherwise pressuring her, she said no. There were no complaints."

If accurate, Malakhov's description is in keeping with the public image of Savchenko, one of Ukraine's few female career soldiers, who was last seen in a video interrogation, coolly deflecting questions from a separatist fighter while handcuffed to a metal pipe.

Savchenko Isolated Completely

But if Savchenko isn't complaining, nearly everyone else in Ukraine is.

Her June 18 capture and unexplained reappearance in Russia on July 8 has incensed the Kyiv government, which has accused Moscow of violating international norms by transporting a Ukrainian national across borders to place her on trial.

Moscow says the pilot was arrested at a border point while voluntarily crossing into Russia in the guise of a refugee -- a theory that Savchenko's lawyer, Mark Feygin, dismisses as "total fantasy." "Proceeding from the obvious assumption that any rational person would have, I think that she was passed from hand to hand -- from Luhansk, where she was taken prisoner by representatives of the Luhansk People's Republic, to Russian law enforcement agencies," he says.

Such a transfer, he adds, would constitute felony kidnapping, according to Article 126 of Russia's own Criminal Code.

Feygin, however, can say little more about the circumstances of Savchenko's border crossing, because he has not yet succeeded in seeing his client. Nor have two other prominent lawyers added to Savchenko's defense team, Nikolai Polozov and Ilya Novikov.

Demonstrators hold signs and banners demanding the release of Nadiya Savchenko, during a rally in Kyiv on July 11.
Demonstrators hold signs and banners demanding the release of Nadiya Savchenko, during a rally in Kyiv on July 11.

Hennadiy Breskalenko, Ukraine's consul in Moscow, has also been denied access to Savchenko, despite spending nearly a week in Voronezh.

Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov promised on July 14 to ensure Breskalenko access following four-way talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the foreign ministers of France and Germany, Laurent Fabius and Frank-Walter Steinmeier -- an agreement trumpeted by Poroshenko on Twitter. No visit, however, has yet been granted.

Discrediting The Defense

Savchenko's sister, Vira, has herself canceled a trip to Voronezh amid rumors that she would be arrested upon arrival in Russia. Breskalenko said he personally advised Vira Savchenko, 31, to remain in Ukraine after being informed by Russian investigators that they intended to bring her in for questioning.

Ondrej Valchyshen, who works with the Open Dialogue Foundation, a legal-rights group, says the intimidation of Vira Savchenko is "only the first phase in a campaign to neutralize Nadiya's defense in the Russian Federation." "In the near future, we expect to see attempts to discredit not only her loved ones but also her lawyers, in particular Mark Feygin, as well as our foundation and other human rights defenders," Valchyshen added in a statement on his Facebook page.

Feygin, a former lawmaker who rose to prominence as the defense lawyer for Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova, says he has already faced attempts to discredit his professional reputation.

After announcing on his personal Twitter feed that he had agreed to take on the Savchenko case, he immediately received a comment -- "She's bound to get 10 years, then" -- referring to his failure to prevent Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova from serving jail time.

Others, however, see the brash, publicity-friendly lawyer as the best hope for a case that is almost certain to drag on for months.

Savchenko has already been ordered held pending trial until at least August 30. Her case is similar to that of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who was arrested in Crimea in May and transferred to a Russian prison and will remain in pretrial detention through at least October 11.

Some observers have speculated that Savchenko and Sentsov -- both young, charismatic, and well known in their home countries -- may be used as high-stakes bargaining chips with Kyiv or the West as the war in eastern Ukraine continues.

Feygin says that he feels responsible for the "enormous hopes" of Savchenko's supporters -- particularly after watching her interrogation video. "She behaves bravely, true to her oath," he says. "It's behavior that has inspired many Ukrainians to fight in terms of the ongoing war in the southeast. I would also like to somehow give them the confidence to feel that all is not lost."

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