Ukrainian female pilot faces murder charges in Moscow
Hal Foster and Tatyana Goryachova
BERDYANSK, Ukraine — A celebrated Ukrainian bomber pilot who faces murder charges in Moscow has become a new, high-profile flash point between Ukraine and Russia as they clash over deadly fighting along their border.
First Lt. Nadiya Savchenko, 33, Ukraine’s first female military pilot, is accused of complicity in the June 17 killing of two Russian journalists during a mortar attack on a checkpoint manned by pro-Russian separatists outside Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. She was captured the next day by the separatists and surfaced this month in Voronezh, southwestern Russia, where she is to go on trial.
The case is stoking new tension between Ukraine and Russia because Ukraine contends Savchenko was taken to Russia against her will.
Adding to the drama is her recent choice of a defense counsel: a flamboyant attorney who was part of a legal team that enlisted Madonna, Sting and other celebrities to support the Russian punk-rock protest band Pussy Riot against charges of hooliganism.
Russian lawyer Mark Feigin withdrew from the Pussy Riot case before its conclusion amid accusations that he was using it for publicity. Ultimately three members of the group were given prison sentences, but the sentence of one was suspended and the others received two-year terms, short of the seven-years maximum they faced.
Even before the Savchenko case, relations between the two nations have been worsening, as Ukraine accuses Moscow of supporting the rebellion by separatists in the east, and Russia accuses Kiev’s military forces of targeting innocent ethnic Russian civilians in the region.
Both Russian and Ukrainian leaders have become personally involved in Savchenko’s trial. Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed anger about the Russian journalists’ deaths, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has taken charge of efforts to free Savchenko.
The Russian Investigative Committee, Russia’s equivalent of the FBI, contends Savchenko deliberately helped a Ukrainian mortar crew target the television journalists during a battle. Two of the three members of the state-owned Rossiya TV crew, Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Volshin, died in the shelling.
“Having gained the coordinates of a group of Russian journalists and other civilians near Luhansk, Savchenko passed them on to the combatants,” the Investigative Committee said in a statement. “We have said many times that all those who commit war crimes on the territory of Ukraine will be called to account,” committee spokesman Vladimir Markin added.
Savchenko says she was fighting with a ground unit when the journalists were killed and denied targeting them.
Ukraine’s consul was given permission to visit Savchenko in the detention center, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported Wednesday, citing the Federal Prison Service. The consul had previously been denied access to her.
Savchenko’s family hired Feigin in hopes he will turn her prosecution into a show trial that generates international headlines, as he did in the Pussy Riot case.
The family turned to Feigin after the court in Voronez refused to let a Ukrainian attorney defend her, according to her sister, Vera. “The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has started an Open Dialogue Fund that will pay Feigin’s fees,” she said.
Savchenko is a national hero at home, where she is referred to as Ukraine’s “G.I. Jane.” In addition to being the country’s first female military pilot, she was also the only woman to serve with Ukrainian peacekeepers in Iraq and was a high-profile participant in the Kiev protests that led to the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich in February.
Savchenko endeared herself to the Ukrainian public with her cool but defiant demeanor during an interrogation by separatists, who posted a video of it on YouTube. Asked how many forces are fighting the insurgents, she replies: “Do you think I know this? I think the whole of Ukraine (is fighting against you).”
Poroshenko contends she was “kidnapped” by the separatists and that Moscow ordered them to hand her over — acts that violate “all rules of international law.”
The Ukraine government dismisses Russia’s claim that she was arrested after slipping across the border disguised as a refugee.
Putin has been vocal about what he contends is Ukraine’s mistreatment of Russian journalists covering the Ukraine conflict. He expressed anger about an earlier death of a Russian journalist and Ukraine’s temporary detention of some journalists.
Journalism groups say Putin’s comments are ironic since Russia is hostile to reporters. Fifty-six Russian journalists have been killed in the country since 1992, shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, according to the Washington-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Ukraine had been one of the Soviet republics.
Vera Savchenko, who spent three weeks in the war zone trying to locate her captured sister, said it wasn’t until July 7 that the family learned Nadiya was in Russia. That was when a court-appointed defense attorney called the pilot’s mother Mariya in Kiev. He said Nadiya had been in Russia since June 23, six days after her capture.
In addition to hiring Feigin, the family is taking Nadiya’s case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, which has a history of siding against Russia in human-rights cases.
The family also plans an international “Free Nadiya” campaign to press Russia to drop the prosecution, Vera Savchenko said. Ukrainians have already started a “Free Our Girl” social-media campaign, mimicking one created to free schoolgirls abducted by terrorists in Nigeria.
Meanwhile, Poroshenko and other Ukrainian officials are working the diplomatic front. The president has spoken to leaders of the United States, Germany, France and other countries about Savchenko.
The United States has condemned the charges against Savchenko and her being taken to Russia in the first place.
In Moscow, some analysts see a downside in choosing Feigin as a defense attorney because he is more interested in politics. “Such a lawyer is bad news for Savchenko, because his aim is to bury the accused for the sake of political effect damaging to the Russian government,” said Sergei Markov, a political analyst and Kremlin adviser.