DONETSK, RUSSIA – A Russian court on Tuesday sentenced Ukrainian military pilot Nadezhda Savchenko to 22 years in prison over the killing of two journalists, a ruling that will exacerbate Moscow’s feud with Kiev and the West.
Judge Leonid Stepanenko found the 34-year-old guilty of involvement in the 2014 shelling of the Russian state television reporters in eastern Ukraine, a widely expected verdict slammed by Washington.
Ukraine’s pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko immediately pledged to “never recognize either this show trial or the so-called sentence” and offered to swap Savchenko for two suspected Russian soldiers on trial in Kiev.
Savchenko — who has become a national hero in her homeland and was elected to parliament in absentia — reacted as the judge read out the sentence at the end of the two-day ruling by shouting in Ukrainian and singing the Ukrainian national anthem.
Her defense team said she did not plan to appeal the “illegal” verdict.
The helicopter pilot — who was fighting in a pro-Kiev militia group against rebels in eastern Ukraine — insists she was kidnapped by separatist fighters before the journalists were killed in June 2014 and then was illegally smuggled to Russia.
Kiev and its Western allies see Savchenko as the latest pawn in Moscow’s broader aggression against Ukraine, in which Moscow has seized the Crimean Peninsula and fueled the separatist uprising.
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby blasted Moscow’s “blatant disregard for the principles of justice” after the verdict and reiterated Washington’s calls for Russia to immediately release Savchenko.
The guilty verdict over the deaths of journalists Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin had long been considered a foregone conclusion, and Kiev has been pushing for a prisoner swap to free Savchenko.
“Putin has said that after the so-called sentence, he will return Nadiya Savchenko to Ukraine,” Poroshenko said in a statement. “The time to keep promises has come. I, in turn, am ready to hand over to Russia two Russian servicemen detained on our territory for their involvement in the armed aggression against Ukraine.”
Kiev says the two men — Capt. Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Sgt. Aleksander Aleksandrov — were members of an elite Russian military intelligence unit helping rebels in east Ukraine.
Russia insists the two servicemen were “volunteers” who were not on active duty, and the Kremlin played coy in response to Poroshenko’s offer.
“Only the president can take that decision. What that is, I cannot yet say,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told Russian news agencies.
Savchenko’s lawyer, Nikolai Polozov, told journalists after the sentencing that she would “not appeal this illegal verdict,” in which the pilot was also found guilty of illegally crossing the border into Russia and the attempted murder of civilians. “She is an iron person — she has an iron will,” Polozov said.
Savchenko has threatened to start refusing all fluids 10 days after the sentencing as she bids to force her release in the latest of a series of hunger strikes she has staged since her arrest.
Throughout her detention, she has struck a defiant pose and was sent to a psychiatric hospital near Moscow before being transferred to the Russian town of Donetsk near the Ukraine border for her trial.
She has ridiculed the court from the defendant’s glass cage and flashed her middle finger at judges earlier this month as her trial ended.
Rights groups have also slammed the case.
“Savchenko did not get a fair trial, and so her conviction is unsound and should not stand,” said Hugh Williamson, the Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “There should be justice for the deaths of Kornelyuk and Voloshin, but justice won’t be served by an unfair trial that was highly politicized from the start.”
The verdict looks likely to refocus some Western attention on Ukraine after Moscow broke out of international isolation over its role in the conflict there with its military intervention in Syria.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier are to fly in to Moscow on Wednesday. While the focus for Kerry, at least, is likely to be the Syrian conflict, Savchenko’s fate looks set to be raised.
More than 9,200 people have been killed since the Moscow-backed insurgency erupted in eastern Ukraine in April 2014, a month after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula.