MOSCOW — A Russian court on Monday appeared to lay the groundwork for a guilty verdict against a Ukrainian helicopter navigator nicknamed Ukraine’s “Joan of Arc,” wrapping up a trial over the 2014 deaths of two Russian journalists that has revived memories of Stalin-era show trials.
Few observers expect an acquittal for the pilot, Lt. Nadiya Savchenko, 34, who has been widely demonized by Russia’s news media. Savchenko is accused of directing mortar fire that killed the Russian journalists in southeast Ukraine in 2014. She has denied any wrongdoing.
Russian news agencies on Monday prematurely reported that Savchenko was found guilty, as the judge, Leonid Stepanenko, reviewed the evidence from the six-month trial in a monotone.
Such pro forma readings can last days. Although the judge’s language may indicate whether the defendant will be found guilty, the verdict and sentence are officially delivered only at the end of the session. The trial’s conclusion is expected Tuesday. Prosecutors have sought a sentence of 23 years.
The Russian government has accused Savchenko of murder — which the prosecution says was motivated by ethnic hatred for Russian speakers — and of later illegally crossing into Russia, where she was arrested. Savchenko says she was abducted in Ukraine and spirited into Russia, where she was handed over to police.
Since her capture, Savchenko has become a national symbol of resistance in Ukraine and a favorite target for Russians. She was elected a member of the Ukrainian parliament in absentia.
Western leaders have widely condemned the Russian court proceedings, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced last week that he would try to get the European Union to issue sanctions against a roster of officials involved in Savchenko’s detention.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry has condemned the trial, and Savchenko may be on the agenda when he visits Moscow this week to discuss the cease-fire in Syria. The front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, also has expressed concern about Savchenko’s well-being.
Western officials and members of Savchenko’s legal team have said that the expected guilty verdict may set the stage for a prisoner exchange. Two alleged Russian service members are on trial in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, on suspicion of fighting alongside Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
When asked about a possible trade for Savchenko at a news conference this month, Poroshenko said: “As the president of Ukraine, using my constitutional rights, yes, it is possible. I am ready to swap so Nadiya Savchenko can come home.”
The Kremlin has denied that a prisoner exchange has been discussed with Kiev. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman has said that any such discussions cannot take place before a verdict is delivered in Savchenko’s case.
Such swaps are an established tradition in Russia’s relations with the West. In September, Russia exchanged an Estonian security official, Eston Kohver, a little more than one month after he was sentenced to 15 years in prison on espionage charges.
But it is unclear that a similar agreement could be reached in Savchenko’s case, given the severity of the charges against her and the tense relations between Moscow and Kiev.
Ukraine has also demanded that Russia hand over several other Ukrainian nationals recently convicted on terrorism charges, including Oleg Sentsov, a filmmaker sentenced to 20 years in prison. Amnesty International said the case was “redolent of Stalinist-era show trials.” Sentsov is still in prison in Russia.
Savchenko’s attorneys said Monday that their client plans to resume a hunger strike and refuse liquids as a form of protest.