By Vincent Maresca
On March 22, a Russian court sentenced Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko to 22 years in prison for murdering two Russian journalists in eastern Ukraine. According to the New York Times, prosecutors provided reports from the Donetsk city court during the trial.
In June 2014, Lieutenant Savchenko gave the coordinates of the location of a rebel-held checkpoint to Ukrainian troops. Russian journalists Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin, who worked for a state-owned news channel, were present at the targeted checkpoint when the mortar shell from the Ukrainian side hit the area and killed them. An hour after the bombardment, Savchenko disappeared from her team.
Several disputes remain regarding Savchenko’s sudden detention in Russia. According to her alibi, rebel forces of the Luhansk Republic kidnapped and transported her across the border into Russia. This was denied by the Russian government, who claimed that Savchenko illegally entered Russia of her own will as an asylum-seeker, according to Russia Today. An interview confirmed that a rebel soldier, by the nickname Ilim, captured the Ukrainian pilot just before the journalists’ deaths.
Some of the victims’ families and relatives welcomed the verdict, but chose not to give further comment. Russia Today reportedly interviewed Igor Kornelyuk’s brother Oleg, who called the ruling “just” and hoped that during Savchenko’s time in jail, she “may mend her own ways.”
Ukraine has acknowledged Savchenko as a Ukrainian hero for her role behind the frontlines directing artillery, but Kornelyuk finds it strange that Ukraine would give her such a title. Savchenko’s sentencing caused public outcry inside Russia and abroad. U.S. State Department spokesperson John Kirby said in a statement that the case is a blatant violation of international law and norms, citing the Minsk II agreements and calling for Savchenko’s immediate release and return to Ukraine. The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ statement was in line with the United States’, and declared her immunity under the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
Five days after Savchenko’s sentence, demonstrators peacefully gathered in Moscow to support the Ukrainian pilot. According to Ukraine Today, the people were activists from Solidarnost, a group formed by the late Boris Nemtsov, who was Putin’s main rival during the last presidential election. Despite following the correct procedures and having permission from the city administration, the crowd was dispersed by police and nine people were arrested.
Russia strongly reacted against foreign criticism. As RT News reports, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s spokesperson Maria Zakharova commented on the State Department’s wording, pointing out that the Minsk Agreements do not apply to Savchenko’s case. She also denounced other words in the statement such as “endured interrogation, solitary confinement, and forced ‘psychiatric evaluation,” indicating that the United States abused inmates at the Guantanamo Bay prison, and captured numerous foreign citizens within the United States.
The judge who convicted Savchenko did not take into account her PACE immunity because she acquired it after the murder of the two journalists.
As of now, Savchenko’s health is declining. According to Ukraine Today, Ukrainian consuls visited her in prison and reported her refusing nourishment, and having nausea and a low blood pressure. Savchenko insists on being examined only by non-Russian doctors.
Former Ukrainian Prime Minister and 2014 presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko announced on television that Russia would release the pilot through either extradition or a prisoner swap. However, Savchenko’s defense lawyer Ilya Novikov pointed out that the pilot will not return to Ukraine two weeks after the verdict, but that the Putin government will make a decision during this period.