By Anton Naumlyuk, photographer and Svoboda correspondent. All photos and video by Anton Naumlyuk
Translated and edited by Voices of Ukraine
“I fear for every Ukrainian who comes to Russia.”
As of January 29, 2016 – Nadiya Savchenko has been on her second hunger strike protest for 43 days.
The trial of Nadiya Savchenko – the Ukrainian soldier seized by separatists in Donbas, and transferred to Russia, where she is accused in the deaths of VGTRK [All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company] journalists Igor Korneliuk and Anton Voloshin – is nearing completion.
The defense side, as seen, has been at work over the past few weeks and is presenting “surprises” to the investigation and the court. Situated near the Ukrainian border, the Russian city of Donetsk, where the trial is held, has witnesses and experts coming from Ukraine for every session. According to lawyer Ilya Novikov, a month ago, he did not expect the finale to be so intense.
The Judicial Board, which examines Savchenko’s case, has refused to summon from Ukraine the witnesses proposed by the defense. First of all, these are former and current military of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) – from the 80th Brigade and the “Aidar” Battalion – who took part in the battle against the separatists in the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic” on June 17, 2014. Potential witnesses – among them a former fighter from the “Aidar” Battalion, Alexander Godzyakovsky, whom the separatists captured when he was driving Vira Savchenko to help her sister – informed Savchenko’s lawyers of their preliminary consent to visit, but requested security guarantees. Such guarantees could be in the form of an official summons from the Donetsk Court through the Ministry of Justice of Ukraine. Incidentally, this is how all Ukrainian witnesses for the prosecution were summoned, including the head of the unrecognized republic Igor Plotnitsky. It is unlikely that the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice handed him a summons to the Donetsk Court, but the court did issue a formal summons with his name. In the case of the defense witnesses, the court was not so considerate.
“I fear for every Ukrainian that comes to Russia,” Savchenko said. “If the court can ensure their safe travel to the trial and back, then call them. If not, do not summon them.”
“People who came to Donetsk from Ukraine to testify as witnesses in Savchenko’s defense, did so in spite of the danger that threatens them in the Russian Federation” – tweeted lawyer Mark Feygin. The defense managed to attract several people from Ukraine as witnesses and experts. They came to Donetsk accompanied by consuls, with no summons, and the lawyers had to periodically prove to the court the need for their questioning. It is hard to say exactly, but it seems that security measures in and around the Donetsk court intensified during the visits of the Ukrainians: there were more police, and everyone who approached the court was inspected more carefully.
VIDEO: Savchenko’s Defense. The Court of Donetsk, Rostov region, in the trial of Ukrainian serviceman Nadiya Savchenko, ended consideration of the defense’s evidence. Emotions were taken to the edge, the judge threatened to remove Savchenko from the court, and in response she threatened to start a dry hunger strike. The court rejected most of the defense’s petitions. On Monday, Nadiya herself will give testimony, she and her lawyers are expecting a verdict by the end of February. All week, the trial was followed by Anton Naumlyuk, correspondent for Radio Liberty.
Savchenko’s defense team has been working simultaneously in several directions, each of which was to confirm the main thesis and the alibi of the Ukrainian first lieutenant: she was captured by Luhansk separatists a few hours before the shelling which killed Kornelyuk and Voloshin. Servicemen of the AFU who came under fire and were captured at the same time as Savchenko on June 17, 2014 could definitely confirm her alibi, but most of them considered it dangerous to go to Donetsk, and their written testimony taken down by the lawyers was ignored back at the investigation stage. Prosecution witnesses from Igor Plotnitsky’s “Zorya” battalion that captured Savchenko, of course, claimed that she was detained after the AFU’s shelling.
To refute their words, two former soldiers of the AFU’s 80th Brigade came to Donetsk – Ivan Rusnak, who spoke last week, and Yaroslav Hryhoriev, who was questioned at the last session. They both saw Savchenko on June 17, 2014, and, by piecing their stories together, it is possible to restore the battle’s timeline, which is especially important.
Shortly after 7 am, a few dozen fighters from the 80th Brigade received the order “all aboard,” they boarded three armored personnel carriers (APCs), and went to the Stukalova Balka area. They were supposed to meet up with an APC of the Special Forces Regiment, and, together, drive towards the golf club, where they were to take up the defense. For this purpose, they had to leave the main road, but the special forces’ armored vehicle broke away from the main group, and the other three APCs missed the turn. Ilya Novikov described the events quite eloquently: “The battle on June 17 was one big mistake.” Three armored personnel carriers were moving parallel to each other, taking up the entire width of the road. At about 8 am they came upon separatist fortifications near the Road Patrol Service post at the crossroads by the village of Metalist. The armored vehicles were fired on by rifles and RPGs. A grenade hit the middle armored personnel carrier; Rusnak was in it. His team, with several heavily wounded soldiers, managed to make it out into the roadside greenery.
The armored vehicle on the left managed to slip through and towards Luhansk, while Hryhoriev’s APC (on the right) was hit by a grenade that ricocheted and exploded underneath it. The vehicle was thrown, it swerved into the roadside “greenery,” ran over the separatists’ trench, crushing one of them in passing, and stalled. At this time, it was hit by a second grenade. Some of the soldiers were seriously injured, some of them tried to return fire until their ammunition ran out. After that, the separatists offered to them to surrender, saying that otherwise they would throw hand grenades into the broken-down APC. The driver, Valyavsky, was immediately shot, as revenge for the crushed separatist, and Hryhoriev was taken to the trench and left there for about 40 minutes.
At this point, several soldiers from the middle APC, including Ivan Rusnak, withdrew to the roadside forest and took up a defensive perimeter. They had two seriously wounded men, too injured to be safely moved. Telephones were turned off so as not to be discovered. Around 9:30am, they were found by Nadiya Savchenko, who arrived to the golf club on board of a tank, and went on foot from there, trying to find the wounded and conduct reconnaissance. She bandaged one of the wounded and went onto the road to use her phone and call for help for Rusnak’s soldiers. The connection was unstable, since the nearest phone towers (in Stukalova Balka and in the village of Metalist) were no longer operational. At this time, she was shot in the forearm. Savchenko got through to her sister Vira, who sent in her “Mini Cooper” with the two “Aidar” soldiers to evacuate the wounded. Then Savchenko advanced toward the broken and smoking APCs, to try to find survivors and help them.
The help did not make it to Rusnak’s team in time. The vehicle with Alexander Hodzyakovsky and Taras Sinyahovsky sped past them and fell into the same ambush as the three APCs had previously. Both fighters were taken prisoner, and Hryhoriev, who by then had been taken out of the trench and tied to a tree, saw them.
“In captivity, they all said that they were from the construction battalion and had fled from the AFU because of the harsh service conditions,” Hryhoriev stated. “Why did they say that?” – the Prosecutor wondered. “Because they’re smart,” – the witness replied, and everyone in the courtroom laughed. “If they had told the truth, they would have been killed.”
But even before that, Hryhoriev watched as they brought in captured prisoners from the 128th Brigade of the Armed Forces, the crew of the three IFVs that had been headed to help the team of the shelled APC. The defense read out the testimony of one of the prisoners, Vyacheslav Ponomarenko, during the previous court session, but the court disallowed attaching it to the case documents. Around 10 am, Hryhoriev saw Nadiya Savchenko, who was being led with their hands tied. She was dressed in a NATO-pattern uniform, but had neither a backpack nor a vest. On her neck was a bright yellow scarf and Hryhoriev at first did not realize that she was a woman. When she was being questioned, Hryhoriev was sitting tied to a tree, facing the other way, and only heard them yelling at her: “Are you a sniper?!” Later, the surviving prisoners were placed in the building of the Luhansk recruiting office, that housed the “Zorya” battalion. Savchenko was kept in the gym shower room, in the next room from where Hryhoriev was put. At night, she would be tied to the bed. Hryhoriev was held in captivity for 28 days and was exchanged by the negotiator Vladimir Ruban. Savchenko was on the same prisoner exchange list, but the separatists didn’t release her.
The main evidence of Savchenko’s innocence, which her lawyers announced even before the start of the trial, is the analysis of her phone billing. The cell tower in Luhansk recorded her signal at around 11 in the morning, long before the deaths of the Russian journalists. According to the investigators, Savchenko climbed a 40-meter communications tower in the region of Stukalova Balka, and directed Ukrainian artillery fire from here, then climbed down and was captured by the separatists. Expert Vyacheslav Zheleznyi took it upon himself to explain the discrepancy: why the communications signal was recorded in the city’s tower, while the phone user was outside the city limits. He worked for the “MTS [Mobile TeleSystems] Ukraine” company until the autumn of 2014 , and, being a communications specialist, provided a professional opinion. When asked whether the communication station in Luhansk could have caught Savchenko’s phone signal while she was much farther north, outside of the city, he replied – yes, with the caveat that this could have happened if other stations, which were closer to her, were damaged and were not operating. The lawyers pointed out that at the time of writing his professional opinion, Zheleznyi was no longer employed by MTS, and his using the company documents was not quite legal, but the court allowed his analysis into the case materials. At the same time, they did not ask Zheleznyi whether the [communications] stations in the northern parts of Luhansk were operational: the expert’s answer with the caveat was deemed sufficient by the prosecution.
Several experts on mobile communication arrived to Donetsk from Ukraine, to speak about the [comm] stations in Luhansk and the surrounding area. The total number of communication towers of “MTS Ukraine” and “Life” [life:) phone operator] in the area was a few dozen, but the relevant ones were the towers in Stukalova Balka and Metalist village, as well as those in the northern parts of Luhansk. The “MTS Ukraine” towers in the Luhansk oblast were under the purview of the specialist Andrei Ivanov, who not only monitored their condition, but installed some of them. According to Ivanov, the towers in Stukalova Balka and Metalist were out of order on June 17, probably as a result of the fighting. But all Luhansk towers were working without a hitch.
“All of the stations in Luhansk city were operating normally,” – Ivanov summed up in his speech in court. “The stations at the golf club and in the village of Metalist were not working. Therefore, it would be fundamentally wrong to assume that the stations in downtown Luhansk (which is a valley) recorded the connection, servicing a phone user who was, allegedly, in the Metalist area. This cannot be.” Savchenko’s call was recorded in Luhansk at 10:44, an SMS from her [was recorded] at 10:46 – long before Kornelyuk and Voloshin came under fire.
The “Life” company stations in Luhansk also were functioning smoothly. This was confirmed by an expert, an employee of the company who asked to conceal his name out of fear for the lives of their family members remaining in Luhansk. Before the session, the lawyers asked journalists not to photograph the expert and, despite the fact that the session was broadcast with video, nobody did.
“Would you know if there was an accident at the station?” – lawyer Novikov asked the witness. “Yes, within the hour,” – said the expert. “If there was rain or snow, or if there were aggressively-minded people near the station, I would have warned the emergency teams of a state of emergency and said, ‘Guys, you’d better not go there.'” And did anything break down on June 17th?”- asked Novikov. “No, on that day I do not remember any trouble. There were no calls [about any emergencies],” – the “secret” witness stated.
The prosecution had prepared a response to this also – by providing an opinion of the [“secret”] expert’s former colleague, Mykola Pomazan, who claimed that the station in Luhansk could have been experiencing problems due to power outages. The court declined to summon Pomazan, despite the [defense] lawyers’ requests, and the only identification presented of him was his ID as a “real estate manager.” Mark Feygin called Pomazan a “false expert” by submitting a response [to his query] from “Life” and its subsidiary “Astelit,” which stated that Pomazan never worked for them.
According to the investigators, to direct artillery fire for the AFU, Savchenko climbed a 40-meter radio tower standing in the middle of a field. By that time she was already wounded in the arm, but the investigators refused to take that fact into consideration. The latest court hearing in Donetsk was attended by two experts, employees of “Ukrtransnafta,” a company who owns the [radio] tower (listed on the company balance sheet as assets). The Head of Maintenance for the Pridneprovsk pipeline, Oleh Pulynets, brought photographs of the tower to court, but the court did not attach them [to the case materials]. Then the expert sketched the tower by hand to demonstrate that it has been designed with anti-vandal measures: the ladder leading up the tower begins at 6.8 meters above the ground, and getting to it without special equipment is impossible.
When Pulynets presented documents and photos, Nadiya Savchenko asked the court: “Your honor, please accept this document, since the prosecutor’s office and the prosecution are claiming I was on this tower, from where I supposedly directed fire at the poor journalists. It is important that you at least see what it looks like.” The court refused, citing the fact that the documents are drawn up in Ukrainian. This provoked a sharp response from the Ukrainian pilot: “Now we see how the prosecution is oppressing any other language other than Russian. I am Ukrainian, and I speak the Ukrainian language. They should bring translators. What kind of an excuse is this? This is an infringement of my human rights!” In response, the judge threatened to take Savchenko from the courtroom. “I have warned you before,” – said the judge. “And I warn you that if you do, I will start a dry hunger strike,” – Savchenko stated, and then said that she would direct a complaint to the Commissioner for Human Rights Ella Pamfilova, on the grounds of discrimination of language during trial.
Employees of “Ukrtransnafta” climb up the tower with the help of safety equipment and a special ladder, some 10 meters high. There has not been a single case of unauthorized persons climbing the tower. “Did you climb this structure? Well done for jumping six meters in the air!” – Savchenko’s lawyer Mark Feygin said jokingly, showing her a photograph of the tower.
Radio-towerist Serhey Chapak, who is also an employee of “Ukrtransnafta” responsible for maintenance of the towers in the Luhansk oblast, testified at the last court session, despite the protests of the prosecutors. Chapak is the only person to climb the tower from which Savchenko, according to the prosecution, directed artillery fire.
“How far can you see from the tower platform, if you look in the direction of Luhansk? Is the Luhansk–Shchastya road visible from there?” – lawyer Novikov asked the expert. “No, you cannot see it behind the roadside greenery. It is visible further along. Nearby, the trees are tall, 5-6 meters,” – Chapak said. “And the Road Police post (at which the journalists were killed -Ed.), is it visible [from the tower]?” – Novikov asked again. The expert said no.
He also voiced his doubts as to whether the tower can be climbed with only one good hand or by a wounded person. Himself, he always used safety gear to climb, and it took him about half an hour.
“Can one climb the tower using only one hand?” – lawyer Nikolai Polozov asked him. “No,” – said Chapak. “Well then, why…” – the prosecutor said quietly and then asked loudly: “What if you hook yourself by your elbow joint?” – “That’s not impossible.” – “Why not?” – “You’ll fall,” – the expert said. “Well, what if you don’t?” – the Prosecutor quipped. Everyone laughed.
On Monday, February 1st, Nadiya Savchenko will be questioned again. Now she will be able to refer to all of the materials that have been studied in court. In fact, her testimony will begin the debate between the sides [defense and prosecution], then to be followed by additional arguments of the prosecutor and the lawyers. The defense fears that now that the prosecutors, according to Mark Feygin, “did not give any evidence linking Savchenko to the direction of fire or to the tower,” they might bring in another “witness” who will claim they saw the Ukrainian aviator climbing the tower. Now, this potential “witness” will have to explain how Savchenko managed to get up to a 6.8 meter height without special equipment or a ladder, and how she managed to see, among the greenery, the intersection where the journalists were killed.
The timeline of the battle on June 17, 2014, during which Savchenko was captured, has also now been reconstructed, down to each minute. But the testimonies of the AFU servicemen summoned by the defense witnesses are in contradiction with those of the separatists invited by the prosecution. In this case, the decision rests with the court, but the trend in their decision-making is quite obvious: during the second-to-last session, 11 petitions filed by lawyers were rejected.
“We are close to finishing. Next week, we are likely to complete our part,” assured Ilya Novikov. “We expect that the debate will start no later than mid-February, and by the end of February, there will be a verdict. We will be passing on a very good dossier to the Ukrainian and European negotiators who will be dealing with Nadiya Savchenko’s case [in the aftermath of the verdict]. They will not be accused of speaking up for a war criminal. Anyone who studies the materials of the case will say that Nadiya is innocent, and has no relation to the journalists’ deaths. Once the verdict is rendered, the ball will go over to the diplomats. All our hopes rest on the success of future negotiations and the promises given by the politicians.”
Nadiya Savchenko has been on hunger strike for 43 days [as at January 29th – Ed.].
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