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Published in Stream:
Day 765: March 23, 2016
Press by
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russian Justice Ministry, Kremlin Deny Plans to Return or Exchange Imprisoned Ukrainian Pilot Savchenko
6 years
1 Ukrainian Soldier Killed, 7 Wounded in Fierce Night Battle at Avdeyevka

RBC reports that in a response to a statement from Ukraine, the Russian Ministry of Justice says it had "not yet received" appeals to return home imprisoned Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko, convicted yesterday of the murder of Russian journalists and sentenced to 22 years.

Savchenko's lawyers and Western governments believe she is innocent and was framed to create a political hostage that Russia will not recognize as a POW in existing trades of such prisoners under the Minsk agreement.

The Justice Ministry said that any petition about the possible handover of Savchenko to Ukraine would have to be reviewed for compliance with Russia's Code of Criminal Procedures and the 1998 Convention on the Rendition of Convicts for Future Serving of Sentences.

Back in October 2015, the Russian Justice Ministry said that only if Savchenko were first sentenced could there be an examination of the petition to extradite her. At that time, the Justice Ministry referenced the 1998 Convention. Savchenko denied any involvement in the deaths of the journalists Anton Voloshin and Igor Kornelyuk, who were killed in shell fire at a Russian-backed separatist checkpoint in 2014.

Her defense presented evidence that she was taken into custody by forces of the self-declared "Lugansk People's Republic" even before the journalists were struck at the checkpoint. Her cell phone billing records show she was not in the area such as to have been involved in the incident. Yet this is the kind of evidence the Russian court refused to review or substantively contest.

The fiction that the Russian court system is independent, and no one -- such as supporters of Savchenko or Western governments -- should "interfere" in its work by complaining about its injustice has been a hallmark of this as other political prisoners' cases. Each time Peskov or other Kremlin officials are asked about the case, they piously reference to the "inadmissibility" of interfering with the "independence of the judiciary."

Ella Pamfilova, the human rights ombudsperson of Russia, indulged in this fiction when she reprimanded Savchenko's two lawyers today, accusing them of appealing to the Russian justice system to extradite their client, even as they complain of its unfairness and procedural violations in Savchenko's case.

In fact, the two human rights lawyers are doing their job when they attempt to get the impossibly biased and corrupt Russian criminal justice system to abide by both its own basic procedures and the principles of international law, which include discovery, an adversarial defense, calling of witnesses, and so on.

The Russian prosecutor has never presented evidence that Savchenko was involving in spotting for the Ukrainian military by proving that she was in the area. The prosecutor and the judge have been oblivious to ample footage even from Russian state TV, taken by the victims of the shelling themselves, that shows they were careless at a checkpoint, not wearing protective gear, and hanging around armed fighters at a legitimate target in a war.

Russia has also never been able to explain how Savchenko got across the border into Russia, unless it was by kidnapping her.

The climate of intimidation against Savchenko's attorneys, Mark Feygin and Nikolai Polozov have been threatened with disbarment and a witness has been intimidated:

Experts who provided testimony in favor of Savchenko may be jailed for perjury.

While lawyers and human rights groups will go on trying to get the Justice Ministry to receive files and function, the real lever is a political one in the Kremlin. At any moment, Putin or one of his deputies could decide that Savchenko could be traded for Russians held by Ukraine, such as two GRU agents arrested last year on the battlefield in Ukraine. President Petro Poroshenko has said he would give up these prisoners, who are viewed as terrorists causing death and destruction in his country, to Russia in an exchange involving Savchenko.

There have been rumors that Russia might look at such a deal since the Minsk talks in February 2015. But a source in the Kremlin denied the claim appearing in Ukrainian and Russian media today that Savchenko might be returned to Ukraine soon., an independent news site that has been blocked by censors from view in Russia due to its criticism of Putin and his policies, cited a source claiming that Amb. Mikhail Zurabov, Russia's envoy to Kiev, made this statement at a closed meeting in Kiev, although it was not clear if her return would be part of an exchange for any Russian prisoners.

"Don't read," the Kremlin source said, which will likely be only an endorsement for some looking for alternatives to

Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov has also said he knew of no plans to exchange or return Savchenko.

But Poroshenko said -- as he had said back in February 2015 in Minsk -- that in a recent "Normandy Quartet" meeting involving the leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia, Putin did make this promise. The Justice Ministry has added to the Kremlin negative by saying they received no request to extradite Savchenko from Ukraine, although if her case was the subject of a political agreement at the level of the "Normandy Quartet," Ukraine might not go that route.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick