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26th May 2022

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Russia to free Ukraine pilot Savchenko, lawyer says

  • Savchenko at her trial in Donetsk, Russia: "She has an adamant nature" (Photo: Reuters)

Nadyia Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot jailed by Russia, is likely to be freed in a prisoner exchange in the next few weeks, her lawyer has told EUobserver.

“We expect that within maybe two or three weeks this will be realised … We have very good signals that this will be the probable ending of the story,” her lawyer, IIya Novikov, said from Russia on Wednesday (23 March).

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  • EU foreign ministers hold up image of Savchenko. Kremlin keen to "get rid" of irritant, lawyer said (Photo: consilium.europa.au)

He said EU and US diplomats are in talks with Russia on the issue.

“There are many channels, but I’m putting my hope in the visit by [US] secretary of state John Kerry to Moscow this week. I know from a reliable source that Savchenko is one of the most important questions on his agenda,” Novikov said.

He noted that US president Barack Obama recently spoke out on her case. “Before I heard that, I would have thought it’s impossible,” Novikov said.

According to the EU, Savchenko was abducted from Ukraine by Russia-linked forces two years ago. She was taken to Russia and put through a show trial for her alleged role in the death of two Russian reporters.

Russia said she crossed the border herself and, on Tuesday, sentenced her to 22 years in prison.

Novikov said she’ll most likely be exchanged for one or two Russian soldiers or intelligence officers captured by Ukraine.

He said the fact she was sentenced the same day as the Brussels terrorist attacks meant little.

“She might not be the top headline, but diplomats know very well what they have to do,” he said.

He said Russia wants to “get rid of the problem” after Savchenko became an irritant in diplomatic relations. “From the beginning of March, any discussion that Russia takes part in starts with the question: ‘What about Nadyia Savchenko?’,” the lawyer said.

He also said her trial was so blatantly rigged that it was an embarassment for the Kremlin.

“Even the Russian president [Vladimir Putin] understood … that if he recognised it he’d lose face,” Novikov said.

He said Putin could wield a presidential pardon. “Whatever he says happens in a matter of days, if not hours,” Novikov said.

Other options include freeing her under a prisoner exchange clause in the so-called Minsk ceasefire accord on Ukraine or letting her serve her sentence in Ukraine.

Novikov said Russia had tried to get bigger concessions.

He heard “rumours” that Russia asked the EU and US to recognise its annexation of Crimea or to relax sanctions in return for her release, but he said “such things were clearly out of the question.”

He said Savchenko is in good physical and psychological health, despite her on-off hunger strikes.

“She has an adamant nature. We couldn’t have gotten so far if she was the type of person that could be broken in prison,” he said.

An EU source told EUobserver that Brussels also expected to secure her release.

The contact said her exchange would likely follow the Estonia model.

Estonia last year handed over an ethnic Russian convicted of espionage in return for Eston Kohver, an Estonian intelligence officer whom it said Russia abducted from Estonian territory.

The EU source said Savchenko's release would help Russia to claim that it was honouring the Minsk accord.

Others at risk

If Savchenko is freed, it would still leave 27 other Ukrainians whom Kiev has said are being illegally detained by Russia.

Novikov said two of them are in “danger.”

One, Yury Soloshenko, is 73 years old and in bad health, but has been sentenced to six years in a penal colony for espionage. The other, Stanislav Klich, a journalist, risks being sent to a psychiatric facility.

“If they say he’s insane, he’ll disappear. Neither lawyers nor the Ukrainian consulate have access to such facilities,” Novikov said.

Novikov was a criminal law attorney at a private firm prior to taking on four of the 28 Ukrainian cases, two of them pro bono.

He said he’s doing it in a private capacity because the cases are “radioactive” in political terms and would have destroyed his law firm.

He said the high profile of the Savchenko trial has afforded him a degree of protection.

He has disregarded threats against him in Russian media and on websites.

“But this case is almost over and we’re concerned for our own safety when this comes to an end,” he said, referring to himself and two associates.

Rule of law

Novikov said he took the Savchenko case in order to defend the rule of law in Russia.

“It’s not about a woman crying for mercy. It’s about justice,” he said.

MPs in Estonia and Lithuania have urged the EU to put the 30 or so judges and prosecutors deemed guilty of her detention under a visa ban.

But Novikov said he would rather see Russian VIPs who put pressure on the courts to be held accountable.

“Some important politicians and officials said prior to the verdict that she’s guilty … it would be more appropriate for them to be made responsible,” he said.

“In Russia, when a high official makes that kind of statement it makes a material difference [to the court’s decision].”

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