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Russian judge hints female Ukrainian pilot guilty of murder in journalists' 2014 deaths

By Doug G. Ware   |   March 21, 2016 at 7:18 PM

DONETSK, ROSTOV, Russia, March 21 (UPI) -- A former Ukraininan pilot will be convicted of murder in the airstrike deaths two years ago of a pair of Russian journalists -- potentially setting off another powder keg of tension between the two former Eastern Bloc nations, a Donetsk court has hinted.

Monday's court session ended without a verdict from the jury, but the court judge stated that Nadia Savchenko was complicit in the deaths of Igor Vladimirovich Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin. Kornelyuk, 37, was a correspondent for the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company and Voloshin, 26, was a sound technician when they were killed by Ukrainian mortar fire on June 17, 2014.

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Five refugees were also killed in the strike on a LPR rebel checkpoint near Luhansk, officials said. The attack was ordered by the Ukrainian military, which said it was targeting pro-Russian separatists.

Monday, the court said Savchenko was complicit in the deaths because she helped direct artillery fire toward the location where the journalists were meeting with locals. She was captured by separatists the following day and has been detained since -- mostly isolated in a glass cage.

"Savchenko committed murder by prior arrangement with a group of people out of hate and hostility," the judge said, indicating that the jury's verdict will indeed bring a conviction.

A veteran volunteer aviator in Ukraine's army, Savchenko has repeatedly denied any involvement whatsoever in the reporters' deaths and has claimed she was abducted by pro-Russian forces and subsequently handed over to Moscow forces. Prosecutors, though, claim she was released and entered Russia illegally. She is charged with murder, attempted murder and illegally crossing the border into Russia.

Savchenko's arrest, detention and trial have been soundly criticized by the Ukrainian government, the European Union and U.S. President Barack Obama -- who has stated support for the 34-year-old aviator in joining the calls for her release.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, though, reportedly told Obama over the phone that releasing Savchenko would inappropriately interfere in the judicial system's determination of her guilt or innocence.

A protester calls for the release of former Ukrainian pilot Nadia Savchenko during a rally outside the Russian embassy in Kiev, Ukraine, on March 9, 2016. Savchenko was arrested and tried in the deaths of two Russian journalists in June 2014. Photo by Furyk Nazar/Shutterstock

"[Putin] has explained the matter many times; explanations have been given both to foreign colleagues and at other levels that this is a judicial proceeding and any external interference in the jurisdiction of our courts is inadmissible," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last week. "It is impossible to offer any opinions or to do anything else until the judicial proceeding is over and a sentence is handed down."

Despite signs of an impending conviction, the Ukrainian government has continued to call for Savchenko's release.

"We don't desert our fellow countrymen. We fight and will keep fighting to see her release," Ukrainian spokesman Svyatoslav Tsegolko said Monday. "Savchenko's release is envisaged in the Minsk agreements, and the fact that she has not been freed yet means Russia is violating them."

The trial has generated a great deal of controversy in Russia and Ukraine -- two nations that have literally been fighting nonstop since Moscow's annexation of Crimea two years ago. A guilty verdict in the case on Tuesday would almost certainly further chafe the governments' already frayed relations.

After learning of the judge's remarks, Amnesty International on Monday called for a full and impartial investigation into the matter.

If convicted, Savchenko could spend 23 years in prison, which is the sentence recommended by prosecutors. She has previously stated that if she is found guilty, she would avoid the court's punishment by starving herself to death in captivity.

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