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Russia Accuses Ukraine Female Military Pilot Of Murder


That conflict in eastern Ukraine between the government and pro-Russian separatists is raging on. But we have the story this morning of a sideshow that is playing out in a courtroom in southern Russia. Two years ago, a news crew for Russian state television that was covering the war was hit by mortar fire. The soundman and a well-known reporter were both killed. And now on trial for their murder in Russia is a female military pilot who was serving in the Ukrainian armed forces. NPR's Corey Flintoff is on the line from Moscow. Corey, good morning.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So who is this pilot who's on trial here?

FLINTOFF: Well, she is Ukrainian lieutenant named Nadezhda Savchenko. And even before the war she was a celebrity in Ukraine because she's the first female pilot there to qualify to fly combat helicopters and a jet bomber. She was in the Ukrainian contingent in the Iraq War. And she also volunteered to fight in eastern Ukraine back in 2014.

GREENE: OK, so celebrity pilot, someone people already knew, Russians now accusing her of murder. What exactly is the case against her here?

FLINTOFF: Well, at the time she was an artillery spotter, and that means that she was helping to identify targets and give their location to the gunners. The Russian's say she deliberately targeted these two Russian journalists who were then killed by mortar fire. And that would be a war crime; it's deliberating targeting civilians. But Savchenko's defense says she could not have done it. They say cell phone records prove that she was captured by separatist militia fighters at least an hour before these journalists were killed.

GREENE: Oh, so captured before this happened and now she has somehow ended up in Russia and in a courtroom and charged with murder.

FLINTOFF: Yeah, that's where this story gets even stranger. Savchenko was captured in Ukraine, and there's even video of her being interrogated by these militia fighters there. But the Russian prosecutors say she was released by the militia and that she then sneaked across the Russian border where she was caught by an alert Russian cop during a routine ID check. Savchenko's lawyers of course say that's a lie. They ask why a Ukrainian military officer would sneak into Russia instead of going back to her unit.


FLINTOFF: They say these pro-Russian separatists just turned Savchenko over to the Russian authorities and who then trumped up some false charges just for propaganda purposes.

GREENE: Well, Corey, so much to ask about here, I mean, including whether this women was targeted because she was as you said a celebrity. And I guess defense lawyers and human rights groups are just saying this trial's a sham, right?

FLINTOFF: Yeah. Well, this trial's been really hard for independent media to cover because it's not in Moscow. It's in a small Russian town just across the border from eastern Ukraine. But what we're seeing in the courtroom is pretty striking. Savchenko's a young woman; she's only 34. And she's locked into this glass box, it's, you know, the typical Russian defendants...

GREENE: That's the way they do their trials in Russia...

FLINTOFF: ...Caged.

GREENE: ...Caging the defendant. Yeah.

FLINTOFF: Exactly, yeah. As she was giving her final statement the other day, she jumped up and she said basically if you want to know what I think of this court it's this - and she gave the judge the finger.

GREENE: She gave the judge the middle finger?

FLINTOFF: Yes. She also said that she's going without food or water until she's released.

GREENE: So she's doing OK?

FLINTOFF: Well, she has started drinking water now. And it seems that her condition is improving at least.

GREENE: And Corey what happens if she's found guilty here?

FLINTOFF: Well, prosecutors have asked for 23 years in prison. But there is some possibility that she could be exchanged for Russian soldiers.

GREENE: You mean Russian soldiers who are being held in Ukraine right now.

FLINTOFF: Exactly.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Corey Flintoff reporting from Moscow. Corey, thank you.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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