Russia finds Ukraine pilot guilty over journalists' killing

DONETSK, Russia - A Russian court on Monday found Ukrainian combat pilot Nadiya Savchenko guilty over the killing of two Russian journalists in war-torn east Ukraine, in a trial condemned by Kiev and the West as a political sham.
Savchenko "committed the premeditated murder as part of a group of people from the motives of hatred and enmity," the judge was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.
Prosecutors have demanded 23 years in jail for the 34-year-old army helicopter pilot, who was serving in a pro-Kiev volunteer battalion fighting pro-Russian rebels in east Ukraine at the time.
Sentencing in the case, being heard in the southern town of Donetsk, is set to last until Tuesday.
The judge agreed with the prosecution claims that Savchenko - who denies all the charges - acted as the "spotter" in the fatal shelling of Russian state journalists Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin in June 2014, two months after the separatist uprising was unleashed in the east.
The judge said she was motivated by hatred towards "Russian-speaking people in general", news agencies reported.
Savchenko was also found guilty on a charge of illegally crossing the border into Russia, reports said.
Ukraine and its Western allies regard Savchenko's case as a political show trial and insist she is the latest pawn in the Kremlin's broader aggression against its ex-Soviet neighbour that saw Moscow seize the Crimean peninsula and fuel a separatist insurgency.
Savchenko - who has become a national hero at home and been elected to parliament in absentia - insists she was kidnapped by pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine in June 2014 and illegally smuggled over the border into Russia before the killings.
"The judge is so far reading out the text of the prosecution indictment, cut and pasted into the verdict," Savchenko's lawyer Nikolai Polozov wrote on Twitter.
The verdict against Savchenko had been widely expected and Ukraine has already been pushing for a prisoner swap to bring her home.
Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko has pledged to do "everything possible" to free her and is holding two men accused of being Russian soldiers serving in the east of the country who could be bargaining chips.
But Moscow is also thought to have at least 10 other Ukrainians behind bars - including high-profile detainees like film director Oleg Sentsov - and the Kremlin has given little hint it is ready to play ball.
Savchenko has struck a defiant figure throughout the long months of her detention, which saw her sent to a psychiatric hospital near Moscow before being transferred close to the Ukrainian border for her trial in Donetsk.
She has repeatedly gone on hunger strike to protest her conditions - fasting for more than 80 days at one point and going almost a week without food and water at another.
Usually dressed in a traditional Ukrainian blouse or pro-Kiev T-shirt, Savchenko has ridiculed the court from the glass defendant's cage and flashed her middle finger at the judges as the trial ended.
"All I can do is to show by example that Russia, with its overbearing state and totalitarian regime, can be crushed if you are not afraid or broken," Savchenko said in her closing statement on March 9.
Ties between Moscow and Kiev are already in tatters over the 2014 seizure of Crimea and the separatist insurgency - and the Savchenko verdict looks set only to worsen relations.
A complex political process to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine has stalled as Kiev and Moscow accuse each other of failing to live up to promises made in a peace deal signed more than a year ago.
Russia has meanwhile thrust its way back to the centre of international diplomacy with its air campaign in Syria, prompting some in Kiev to fear the West might ease the pressure over Ukraine.
A harsh sentence for Savchenko could now refocus Western attention, however.
Kiev is pushing for sanctions to be slapped on about 40 people it says are "directly involved" in Savchenko's case.

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