DONETSK, ROSTOV, Russia, March 22 (UPI) -- A former Ukrainian army pilot who's been held in captivity for nearly two years was ordered Tuesday to spend the next two decades behind bars after she was convicted of murder in the deaths of two Russian journalists killed in a 2014 airstrike.
Nadiya Savchenko appeared in a Donetsk court Tuesday to listen to the jury's declaration, but almost certainly expected the conviction after the judge indicated Monday that a guilty verdict was coming.
Savchenko, 34, was declared legally complicit in the deaths of Russian journalists Igor Vladimirovich Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin, who were killed in a mortar attack near Luhansk on June 17, 2014. Prosecutors argued that the volunteer Ukrainian aviator helped direct the artillery fire toward the rebel checkpoint where Kornelyuk and Voloshin had been speaking with locals.
Five refugees also died in the strike, which Ukrainian officials later claimed was aimed at pro-Russian separatists.
A lieutenant in the Ukrainian army at the time of the incident, having served since 1997, Savchenko began to sing a Ukrainian protest song as the court delivered the verdict, which led the judge to postpone the hearing for a few minutes. Later, several spectators in the court began to sing the same anthem -- underscoring the political significance of the case.
Savchenko, one of Ukraine's first female military aviators, had been charged with murder, attempted murder and crossing into Russia illegally. After the verdict was read, the court sentenced her to 22 years in prison.
After the hearing, Ukrainian President Petro O. Poroshenko proposed a prisoner swap to exchange Savchenko for two imprisoned Russian citizens.
Poroshenko did not identify which prisoners were involved with the proposal, but Meduza reported that they might be Alexander Alexandrov and Evgeny Evrofeev, who are jailed in Ukraine on terrorism charges.
Poroshenko even claimed that Putin promised last week that he would hand over Savchenko after her trial ended.
"President Putin said he would return Nadiya V. Savchenko to Ukraine after the so-called court decision," the Ukrainian president wrote on his website Tuesday. "Now, it is time to fulfill that promise."
Putin did not immediately comment on the verdict or Poroshenko's claims Tuesday.
The prosecution of Savchenko has been steeped in controversy for nearly two years -- particularly owing to the possibility that she couldn't have been involved in the fatal airstrike.
Both sides agree that Savchenko was already being held by pro-Russian rebels by June 18, the day after the journalists died. But if she was taken earlier -- before the attack -- as defense lawyers claimed, she would have a foolproof alibi.
At trial, the defense produced cellphone records that indicated Savchenko was more than three miles away from the attack site at the time of the strike. Further, a pro-Russian rebel leader reportedly told a news outlet Monday that his group had captured the female pilot the day before the Luhansk shelling, June 16.
If Savchenko was already in captivity at the time of the artillery strike, she could not have helped direct Ukrainian fire toward the journalists' location, which was the main thrust of Moscow's argument.
According to prosecutors, Savchenko participated in the attack shortly before she was captured by rebels. After she was inexplicably freed by the separatists, they continued, she decided to illegally cross the border into Russia -- a charge she was also found guilty of Tuesday.
Savchenko, though, has repeatedly claimed that she has been in constant captivity since before the June 17 strike -- abducted by separatists in Ukraine who subsequently took her into Russia and handed her over to government forces. She claims she was captured about an hour before the strike killed Kornelyuk and Voloshin.
In addition to generating substantial interest in Russia and Ukraine, the case has further strained relations between Moscow and the West -- which have steadily declined since Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014.
Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama joined the calls for Savchenko's release and even spoke to Putin over the phone about releasing her from custody. The Russian president, however, said it would be inappropriate to intervene in the case before the Donetsk court determined her guilt or innocence.
Savchenko, hailed by many of her countrymen and woman as a hero, also sits on Ukraine's parliament, having been elected in absentia during her captivity. She is the only female aviator ever to pilot the Soviet-made Sukhoi Su-24 bomber and Mil Mi-24 helicopter. In March 2015 Savchenko was awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine, the nation's highest possible honor, by Poroshenko.