A Russian court has found Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko guilty of murder, according to Russian news agencies, as a controversial trial in the south of the country drew to a close.
One of the panel of three judges began reading the verdict in the case, which has caused an international outcry, on Monday morning. The full reading was expected to take two days, with sentencing likely on Tuesday.
Despite Russian agencies widely reporting that the court had found Savchenko guilty, her lawyers said that during the first part of the verdict the judge was merely summarising the prosecution arguments. Few have any doubt that the actual verdict, when it comes, will be a guilty one, however.
Summing up the prosecution arguments, the judge said Savchenko “committed the premeditated murder as part of a group of people from the motives of hatred and enmity”. She was motivated by hatred of “Russian-speaking people in general”, he added, though it was not immediately clear if this was merely a summing up of the prosecution case or the judge’s own conclusions. However, the judge said the witnesses and evidence in the case supported a guilty verdict, RIA Novosti reported.
Savchenko was a fighter pilot in the Ukrainian army who was fighting with the Aidar volunteer battalion in east Ukraine at the time of her arrest. Prosecutors said she was responsible for directing artillery fire in an attack that killed two Russian television journalists. The court refused to admit evidence of her phone calls that the defence team claimed would show she was not in the area at the time of the attack.
Savchenko said she was detained by pro-Russia rebels in east Ukraine and taken across the border to Russia, whereas the prosecution had claimed she crossed the border of her own accord, pretending to be a refugee.
In Russia, Savchenko has been portrayed as a bloodthirsty killer, while Kiev has lionised her and turned her into a national hero. A delegation of Ukrainian politicians, including a number of MPs and the press secretary of president Petro Poroshenko, travelled to the courthouse in the Russian town of Donetsk, close to the border with Ukraine.
The trial has been running since last September. Savchenko went on an 83-day hunger strike earlier in the trial and was again refusing food in protest at delays in the reading of the verdict. During her final statement to the court, a defiant Savchenko railed against the Russian justice and political system and raised her middle finger at the judge.
Prosecutors asked for a 23-year jail sentence for Savchenko. The team of defence lawyers have said they had little hope for a not-guilty verdict in Russia’s politicised justice system but were hoping that after sentencing Savchenko could be made part of an exchange deal between Russia and Ukraine.