Savchenko case: Will Kremlin release Ukraine pilot?

Ukrainian military pilot Nadiya Savchenko (left) inside a cage during her trial in Donetsk, southern Russia. Photo: 21 March 2016 Image copyright EPA
Image caption Nadiya Savchenko adopted an attitude of defiance throughout her trial

For two, long days the chief judge in this controversial case mumbled his way through the ruling, reading out page after barely audible page.

For most people in the small, provincial courtroom the verdict on Tuesday was never in doubt.

But now Nadiya Savchenko has been declared guilty and sentenced to 22 years behind bars, international pressure for her release is mounting.

"For Nadiya it makes no difference whether she got 10 or 20 years. She is convinced the only way she will be set free is through political negotiations," one of her lawyers, Nikolai Polozov, told the BBC outside court.

His colleagues say talks are already under way for her release, though they gave no details.

The US and EU have long condemned the trial of the Ukrainian military officer as illegal.

Exchange proposal

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Image caption Ukrainians see Nadiya Savchenko as a symbol of resistance against what they describe as Russian aggression

She's now been found guilty of directing artillery fire at the height of the fighting with Russia-backed rebels and killing two Russian journalists in eastern Ukraine. She continues to deny that.

Nadiya Savchenko also says she was kidnapped by the rebels and smuggled out of Ukraine after her capture, and then arrested.

But the court decreed that her captors suddenly let her go and she headed through rebel-controlled territory dressed in Ukrainian military fatigues to enter Russia.

"We think that is a farce," insisted Svyatoslav Tsegolko, the press secretary of Ukraine's president who attended the closing sessions of the trial.

"If Russia doesn't want more sanctions it should release her and all the Ukrainian hostages it has," Mr Tsegolko, listing Oleg Sentsov among others. The film director was found guilty of planning terrorist acts in Crimea after its annexation by Russia in 2014 - in another case deemed a show trial by the West.

Last week, US President Barack Obama raised the case of Nadiya Savchenko in a phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Now the US state department has confirmed that John Kerry will discuss her "unjust sentence" when he meets Russia's president in Moscow on Thursday; a spokesman described the US as "extremely concerned".

The Kremlin has previously batted away criticism, arguing that the trial must run its course. But there has been a slight shift in the language now that justice has been "seen to be done".

Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko has announced that he is prepared to swap two Russians captured in eastern Ukraine for Nadiya Savchenko, and Moscow has not rejected that proposal out of hand.

Ukraine says Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Alexander Alexandrov are elite members of Russian military intelligence but Russia maintains they were not on active duty.

"These questions will be considered in full accordance with Russian law," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday, before underlining that any such decision would be taken by the president.

The Kremlin's spokesman has used almost identical language.

'Dead or alive'

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Image caption The final decision in the Savchenko case could be taken by President Putin, Russian officials say

With calls in Europe for fresh sanctions in response to this case, the ball seems to be in President Putin's court.

"However you look at it, this doesn't benefit Russia," opposition politician Alexei Navalny argued in his blog.

He described the trial as such an "obvious stitch-up" you could "see the threads", and suggested whoever planned to make an example of Nadiya Savchenko - as a trophy prisoner from the Ukrainian conflict - had miscalculated.

"Most likely, this is a typical case of idiocy and stubbornness," Alexei Navalny argued, suggesting the Kremlin doesn't want to be seen to give in under pressure.

That could mean Nadiya Savchenko remains behind bars for a long time.

But she has already set her own ultimatum. Her lawyers say she's vowed to start another full hunger strike in 10 working days - as soon as her verdict comes into effect.

"She doesn't want the Russian authorities to waste time deciding her case," Mr Polozov explained. "She wants to force them to send her home, dead or alive."

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