Ukrainian pilot tells court she was smuggled into Russia at gunpoint

Ukrainian pilot tells court she was smuggled into Russia

Donetsk (Russia) (AFP) - Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko, on trial for the murder of two Russian journalists, said Tuesday she was captured by pro-Kremlin separatists and then smuggled into Russia by armed, masked men.

"I am a prisoner of war and a hostage who has been abducted," Savchenko told the court in a dramatic speech, saying separatist rebels captured her in eastern Ukraine and told her they would "sell" her to Russia.

The 34-year-old military helicopter navigator was testifying for the first time at her high-profile trial in the small border town of Donetsk in southern Russia.

The case has made her a national hero in Ukraine and caused outrage in the West.

Russia accuses Savchenko of helping direct an artillery strike that killed two state television journalists in eastern Ukraine in June 2014.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, speaking at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, called Savchenko one of the "political prisoners of the Kremlin" and said the UN should "press Russia to immediately release all Ukrainian hostages."

Standing confidently in a glass-walled dock and wearing a traditional Ukrainian embroidered blouse, Savchenko denied the charges of orchestrating the murder of the journalists.

Trained as a helicopter navigator, she said she "does not know how to" direct artillery fire, which requires complex maths.

The prosecution accuses her of overseeing the strike and then illegally crossing the border into Russia around 30 kilometres (20 miles) away.

Savchenko said she was taken prisoner by separatist rebels hours before the journalists were killed.

She said she was detained by the rebels after an ambush and then held in custody. "Less than a week later, he said that they would sell me to Russia," she said of one of her captors.

The separatists then handed her over to men who spoke with a "Russian accent and did not understand Ukrainian," she said.

"They had masks on and had automatic rifles," she said, adding they appeared to be Russian special forces officers.

The men bundled her into a van and drove her for three and a half hours with a hood over her head before she found herself in Russia and locked in a hotel room in southern city of Voronezh.

"I was taken across the border against my will," she said.

- Case a 'disgrace' -

Savchenko's defence has protested against the trial of a Ukrainian citizen in a Russian court over events that happened in Ukraine.

On Tuesday the court questioned two women from eastern Ukraine whose homes were damaged in the strike allegedly directed by Savchenko and who are classed as injured parties in the case.

The women were speaking via video link from another Russian city after fleeing Ukraine.

Savchenko's lawyers criticised the fact that the women's statements to prosecutors were almost identical.

"People cannot say exactly the same things to the last comma, they aren't robots," said defence lawyer Nikolai Polozov, comparing the case to Stalin-era show trials.

"This seems like the practice from the 1930s when investigators simply wrote testimonies themselves."

"We knew that this case would be a disgrace, and it is proving to be a disgrace right from the start," defence lawyer Ilya Novikov said outside the court, accusing the investigators of "slapping together a fake case".

Savchenko has spent over a year in jail waiting to be tried and has protested against her detention by going on hunger strike for more than 80 days.

Kiev in turn began the trial Tuesday of two Russian soldiers captured in eastern Ukraine in May who say they are members of Russian military intelligence and face terrorism charges.

Though Kiev denies considering a swap, a high-profile prisoner exchange is widely seen as very probable after the trials run their course.

The United States has described Savchenko as a "hostage" of Russia's conflict with Ukraine and called for her to be released, along with several other Ukrainians held by Russia.