MOSCOW — The Russian trial of a Ukrainian pilot, Nadiya Savchenko, was interrupted for a break because the prosecutor felt sick, RIA Novosti reported on Wednesday. The accused, on the other hand, was doing just fine. In the defendant’s glass box, the 34-year-old wore a black shirt with a white trident, Ukraine’s national symbol, and said she was ready to proceed any time with a trial in which she’s accused of murdering two Russian journalists. If convicted, her sentence could be anywhere from eight years to life.
It’s been a long, tough year for Savchenko, but also for her Russian accusers. She has been on multiple hunger strikes, even on a “dry” one, without water. Her only family in the courtroom on Wednesday, younger sister Vera, was also under an accusation for shouting at a judge. But Savchenko looked calm, anything but beaten. She smiled when she saw Vera, who appeared as a witness wearing the same shirt as Savchenko’s, but white with a black trident on her chest. “Vera enters, Ukrainian anthem plays,” Savchenko joked happily, greeting her sister and ignoring the gloomy faces of security officers, according to a transcript of the trial published by the website Media Zona.
Everything about Nadiya Savchenko is a statement, the declaration of a fighter going to war: The strong posture of a trained soldier, the firm look in her piercing blue eyes, her comments, even her jokes. Savchenko, a national hero in her home country, an enemy and defendant in Russia, just keeps smiling, and thanks reporters and foreign diplomats for coming.
Before the Russia-Ukrainian conflict in Crimea and Donbass, Savchenko was little known in the wider world, but Ukraine knew about her as its only woman veteran of the war in Iraq, where Ukrainian troops served as part of the “coalition of the willing.”
Then, in June 2014, by her account, she was captured while serving in eastern Ukraine and turned over to Russian officials. They accused her of involvement in the death of two Russian journalists. The arrest made her world famous.
Ukrainian activists and politicians put Savchenko on their flags, elected her in absentia to the state parliament. Top politicians discussed her fate. This week Savchenko’s lawyer were publicly debating the best way to use U.S. Vice President Joseph R. Biden to negotiate a prisoner exchange. Speaking in Kiev, Biden promised he would tell the world about Nadiya Savchenko.
From the first days of her arrest last year, those who knew Savchenko were impressed by her stamina. In her solitary cell, Savchenko worked on her autobiography and folded origami animals for Russian orphanages.
“She was never going to accept the lies by Russian officials,” Zoya Svetova, an independent prison observer, told The Daily Beast. “They claimed that she was arrested in Russian territory, but she said Russian officials had grabbed her outside of Luhansk, then drove her with an escort of six vehicles to the Russian town of Voronezh, where she was first kept at a hotel as a witness, then arrested.”
As the trial continued on Thursday, witnesses were questioned about how, exactly, Savchenko ended up in Russia. One defense witness, Nadiya’s sister Vera, told the court about the day pro-Russian rebels detained Savchenko in Donbass, and how her sister disappeared later. Another defense witness, Vladimir Ruban, a Ukrainian general responsible for swapping prisoners of war, talked about his negotiations trying to free Savchenko in the rebel-controlled territories. He found it hard to believe the official version, that rebels let Savchenko go and she crossed the Russian border by mistake.
Such anomalous accusations have led to comparisons between Shavchenko’s trial and those of some other famous Russians seen to be railroaded by the authorities, like billionaire Putin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the activists of Pussy Riot.
Svetova remembered the words she heard from the pilot at one of their multiple meetings in jail: “We Ukrainians are not slaves, we fight for our freedom,” Savchenko said.
There are 10 Ukrainian cases in Russia at the moment, Svetova added, but Savchenko’s is the most well known by far. “She is the most famous political prisoner because she is a woman who is melting to bones on hunger strikes,” Svetova said.
It was the rejection of injustice that motivated Savchenko to go on hunger strike, Svetova said. “Though she realized how useless it was to try and push Putin that way, a hunger strike was the only way she knew to maintain her innocence.”
Savchenko insisted she had nothing to do with the deaths of Russian reporters Anton Boloshin and Igor Kornelyuk. She told reporters that maybe one day she had killed somebody innocent in Iraq, which she was willing to go on trial for, but not for the two Russian reporters, who she insisted she had never killed.
When a prosecutor made a comment about Savchenko yelling in court on Wednesday, she sharply waved to him with an open palm, as if saying, “Calm down.” The prosecutor threatened to remove Savchenko from the courtroom for her behavior, to which the defendant answered she would begin a new hunger strike.
For Russian officials in prisons, courts, hospitals, Savchenko is like a hot potato that nobody wants to hold for too long. In Russia even some hard men have admitted that the Ukrainian pilot’s character is made of iron. In her previous hunger strike, last winter, she lost 15 pounds before Russian authorities realized it would be scandalous to see Savchenko die of hunger in a Russian jail.
Savchenko’s lawyers hope that the Kremlin will extradite the pilot to Ukraine, since she’ll be about as hard to handle as Pussy Riot in any Russian complex that tries to hold her.
The court’s verdict is expected before the end of this year.