A Russian judge on Monday said Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko was complicit in the killing of two Russian journalists, an assertion certain to inflame already dire relations between Moscow and Kiev.
Savchenko, 34, was captured by pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine in June 2014 during the separatist conflict there and handed over to Russia where she was charged with directing mortar fire which killed two Russian journalists.
She has denied wrongdoing.
Regarded as a national hero by many in her homeland, Savchenko has been depicted by Russian state TV as a dangerous Ukrainian nationalist with the blood of civilians on her hands.
The United States and the European Union have called on Russia to free Savchenko, who has undertaken various hunger strikes to try to speed up her trial, on humanitarian grounds.
The judge, Leonid Stepanenko, told a courtroom in southern Russia that Savchenko had “deliberately inflicted death on two persons, acting according to a conspiracy and motivated by hatred and enmity.”
Savchenko is not being tried by jury and Russian news agencies said the judge’s words amounted to a formal guilty verdict.
Her lawyers, Mark Feygin and Nikolai Polezov, told Reuters this was only part of the summing up however and not yet a formal guilty verdict which they said they expected later on Monday or even on Tuesday.
They have long asserted that Savchenko is the victim of a politicized show trial and would be found guilty. Prosecutors have asked the court for a 23-year jail sentence.
Angry Ukrainians have pelted the Russian embassy in Kiev with eggs over Savchenko’s plight while Russians have picketed the Ukrainian embassy in Moscow demanding justice for the dead journalists.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to raise the case with the Kremlin later this week during a visit to Moscow.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s wife Marina called on Michelle Obama to join the campaign to free Savchenko, according to a statement on her husband’s web site.
Savchenko hopes to be returned to Ukraine before too long as part of an exchange deal between Moscow and Kiev.
She is expected to launch a new hunger strike, that would also see her refuse to take liquids, once the verdict enters into force to put pressure on Russian authorities to send her back home.