Ukraine Proposes Exchange as Russia Jails Savchenko for 22 Years

  • Judge convicts Ukrainian officer of aiding journalists' murder
  • Poroshenko urges Putin to swap her for two detained Russians

Ukraine called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to send its officer Nadiya Savchenko home in a prisoner exchange after she was sentenced to 22 years in a penal colony in a trial condemned by the U.S. and the European Union.

Savchenko, 34, was convicted Tuesday by a court in Russia of complicity in the murder of two Russian journalists during the conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014. She was also found guilty of illegally crossing Russia’s border and fined 30,000 rubles ($444) by the court in the southern Russian town of Donetsk. Prosecutors had sought a prison term of 23 years.

“Ukraine will never recognize either this show trial or their so-called sentence, the absurdity and cruelty of which proves that Russian justice has returned to the period of Stalin,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Tuesday in a statement on the presidential website. Putin pledged to return Savchenko once proceedings had ended and it’s “time to fulfill that promise,” he said.

Savchenko, who denied the charges and is on hunger strike in protest, has become a symbol for many Ukrainians of resistance to pro-Russian separatism in the conflict in the country’s east. She says she was kidnapped by Russian-backed rebels in the conflict zone in June 2014 and taken across the border to Russia. Ukraine says she’s being held illegally, and the U.S. and the EU have both called on Russia to release her. Savchenko was elected to Ukraine’s parliament in 2014 while in Russian detention.

Release Sought

In exchange for Savchenko, Poroshenko said he’s ready to send home two Russian servicemen detained in Ukraine for “armed aggression” in the country’s east once court proceedings against them have concluded.

Only Putin can decide whether to swap Savchenko, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday, according to state-run RIA Novosti news service. The Kremlin objects to external attempts to “interfere” in the trial and isn’t aware of any discussions about an exchange, Peskov told reporters on March 9.

Poroshenko has said her release is part of the peace accords for resolving the conflict negotiated with Russia, Germany and France in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, last year. Russia has denied this.

Prosecutors said Savchenko was an artillery spotter in eastern Ukraine who directed mortar fire that killed Russian state TV journalists Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin. They said that she crossed the border by herself. Her lawyers said phone records proved she had already been captured by separatists before the journalists died.

Savchenko was convicted “without any basis” and is innocent, Mark Feygin, one of her lawyers, told reporters after the hearing. The trial was “propaganda from the beginning” and intended to “justify the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine,” he said.

‘Useless’ Appeal

Court proceedings were suspended briefly when Savchenko began singing in Ukrainian as the judge read out the statement convicting her. She won’t appeal the conviction because “it’s useless,” Nikolai Polozov, another of her lawyers, told reporters after the trial.

“An exchange may take place, but it’s hardly likely to be as quick as they want in Kiev,” Alexei Chesnakov, a former Kremlin aide who still advises top officials on strategy for the Ukraine conflict, said by e-mail Tuesday. The issue is included in “all sorts of contacts” that Russian officials are having, though negotiations “are hardly of a substantive character” at this stage, he said.

The Meduza news website published an interview with a rebel fighter Tuesday who said that he’d captured Savchenko in eastern Ukraine and handed her over to his superiors several hours before the attack in which the journalists were killed.

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