MOSCOW -- Ukrainian lawmaker Nadia Savchenko traveled to Moscow to support two jailed compatriots appealing their convictions at Russia’s Supreme Court, a surprise trip that was widely believed to be her first visit to Russia since the former captive returned home in a swap deal.
Savchenko, a military aviator who was jailed in Russia in 2014 and became a symbol of Ukrainian resilience amid the conflict between Kyiv’s forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, continues to campaign for the return of Ukrainians she considers hostages of the Kremlin.
She attended a six-hour hearing on October 26 at the Supreme Court in central Moscow, where Ukrainians Mykola Karpyuk and Stanislav Klykh unsuccessfully appealed against their convictions and long prison sentences on charges of fighting alongside Chechen rebels.
"Once again, I've been convinced that Ukrainians can expect no fair trial in Russia," Savchenko told journalists after the judge left the lower court’s decisions in place. "I came to Russia with one objective: to support these guys because I have been down this road this myself."
Savchenko got an icy reception in Moscow, where Russian media besieged her with questions in a courtroom and a city councilor branded her a "murderer," while some Ukrainians questioned whether she was being "used" for Russian ends.
Klykh and Karpyuk were sentenced in May to prison terms of 20 and 22 1/2 years, respectively, after being convicted of fighting on the side of separatists against federal forces in 1994-95, during the first of two post-Soviet wars in southern Russia's Chechnya region.
The Memorial human rights organization has classified them as "political prisoners," calling them victims of an anti-Ukrainian campaign mounted in Russia during the pro-Western Euromaidan protests that toppled the Kremlin-backed Ukrainian president in February 2014.
Karpyuk and Klykh deny the charges outright, saying they have never been to Chechnya and that they were tortured into confessing in a case launched after relations between Moscow and Kyiv soured.
Amnesty International called Karpyuk and Klykh "the victims of a travesty of justice" and a "propaganda-driven show trial."
"Russia’s case against these men defies reason. The numerous fair-trial violations and the unconvincing prosecution evidence all point to a fabricated case," Amnesty regional director John Dalhuisen said in a statement on October 26. "They were denied access to their lawyers of choice and allege that their confessions were forced from them as a result of torture."
Savchenko compared their ordeal to her own.
She says she was captured by Russia-backed fighters in eastern Ukraine in June 2014 and taken illegally to Russia, where she was sentenced to 22 years in prison in March of this year for her alleged role in the deaths of two Russian journalists in the conflict zone, a charge she rejects.
Her hunger strikes, tough talk, and defiance at trial made her a symbol of resistance to Russia, and she returned home a hero in May after being pardoned by President Vladimir Putin in an exchange for two Russians convicted of terrorism in Ukraine for allegedly fighting alongside separatists.
Savchenko consistently maintained that Russia had no right to prosecute her. Elected to parliament while in Russian custody, she has fought for the release of Ukrainians still held in Russia, including Karpyuk, Klykh, film director Oleh Sentsov, and Oleksandr Kolchenko.
Savchenko pointedly refused to speak to the press during recesses at the October 26 hearing, and her criticism of the Russian justice system came in brief remarks to journalists after the ruling.
"I only came here to give [Karpyuk and Klykh] some warm words and not to speak to the press. This comment is over. Goodbye," she said before storming out.
Karpyuk and Klykh are in custody in Grozny, the Chechen capital, and watched the proceedings silently from a small white cage shown in a video link on monitors in the Moscow courtroom.
Savchenko wore traditional Ukrainian dress. During breaks she spoke to Karpyuk and Klykh, who thanked her for being there, and they exchanged chants of "Glory to Ukraine, glory to the heroes."
When the judges adjourned to deliberate, TV crews poured into the courtroom, cornering Savchenko and besieging her with questions. She refused to speak, standing with her arms crossed, sometimes scowling, sometimes smiling, and staring up at an overhead monitor showing Klykh and Karpyuk in their cage.
She was also confronted by Dmitry Zakharov, a Moscow city councilor and prominent advocate of anti-Kyiv forces in eastern Ukraine, who accused Savchenko of conducting a PR stunt by coming to Moscow. She ignored him.
At the beginning of the hearing, Zakharov told TV reporters that he had come to the Supreme Court to tell Savchenko never to return to Russia. "Savchenko is a murderer," he said. "She was pardoned, but she is still a murderer. This has been proven by a court of law. She has come here to stage a circus. This won't come pass though in Russia because here, unlike in Ukraine, there is the law."
President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said there was nothing untoward in Savchenko traveling to Russia. "She is not banned from entering the territory of the Russian Federation. Therefore, there is nothing to react to here," state-run RIA Novosti quoted him as saying.
A former lawyer for Savchenko, Ilya Novikov, said that she flew to Moscow from Minsk after an unsuccessful attempt to drive from Belarus to Moscow in the early hours of October 26. "There was a strange cordon on the road. They took her passport and the driver's for three hours," he said, adding that Russian authorities "didn't detain her, but they also didn't let her through."
Savchenko's trip to Russia was not universally welcomed in Ukraine. Nationalist lawmaker Borislav Bereza wrote that "Savchenko should not have gone to Moscow. The Kremlin lets in Ukrainians only for their games. And if they've let you in, then they're going to use you."