KIEV: Lawyers for a Ukrainian military pilot held in Russia on charges of murdering two Russian journalists in east Ukraine said Tuesday they could prove she was already captive when they died in shelling, but doubted a court would heed their arguments.
Preliminary hearings in the case of Nadia Savchenko, 34, who has become a symbol of resistance in Ukraine to Russian support for separatists in the east, are scheduled for Thursday in the Rostov region in southern Russia.
Savchenko's lawyer, Ilya Novikov, told a briefing in Kiev he had phone billing data showing that she was already the prisoner of pro-Russian rebels when the journalists were killed.
Savchenko is accused of guiding artillery fire down onto identified targets, in this case the location of the journalists.
"According to the billing of Savchenko's two telephones, the first telephone was registered at the center of Luhansk at 10.44 hrs," Novikov said. The position of the second phone was at a rebel base and registered at 11.04 hrs, he added.
The two Russian journalists were killed in shelling at 11.40 hrs outside Luhansk in June 2014.
"If at 10 or 11 hrs she was already in captivity, it completely breaks the Russian version of the deaths," Novikov said. The defense was also in possession of video evidence that demonstrated her innocence.
Savchenko, who was elected a parliamentary deputy in Ukraine after her arrest, is the highest profile Ukrainian prisoner held by Russia and her plight has turned her into a national heroine at home.
Though a fragile ceasefire seems to be holding, more than 6,500 people have been killed in the conflict in Ukraine's industrialized Russian-speaking east. Moscow denies Western accusations it is backing the rebels with arms and soldiers.
Savchenko, who was held for a time in a Moscow psychiatric clinic, is also charged with crossing the border into Russia illegally and could face 25 years in jail if convicted.
Her relatives say she was spirited out of Ukraine illegally into Russia by the rebels who blindfolded her.
Ukrainian and Western politicians have appealed to Moscow to free Savchenko. President Vladimir Putin has said her fate would be decided in court.
Novikov said he had serious doubts about the fairness of the trial she would receive in Russia. "The court will rush and restrict the defense. The sentence has already been approved and it will be as hard as possible."