Nadezhda Savchenko sat on a bench in the glass defendant’s cage, just a few steps away from her mother in a courtroom in southern Russia. “Mom, how is our apple orchard? Was there a good harvest?” she asked. “Wasps ate many of the apples, Nadya,” her mother replied. “They look lovely at first sight, then they turn out to be empty inside.” I overheard this conversation on September 29, before the hearing began. It was an unexpected metaphor for the proceedings – seemingly average at first glance but potentially hollow at its core.
Savchenko’s is one of the most high-profile trials in Russia today. But there is nothing average about her case. Savchenko, a Ukrainian military pilot, is charged with alleged involvement in the killing of two Russian journalists near Luhansk, in rebel-held eastern Ukraine, last summer. The prosecution claims that she gave the journalists’ location to Ukrainian forces, who then allegedly used the information to kill the journalists in a mortar attack. Savchenko is also charged with illegally crossing the Russian border.
Savchenko denies the charges. She maintains she was captured by rebel forces in Ukraine and forcibly brought to Russia. Savchenko insists she did not guide the strike.
There are many reasons Savchenko’s case has attracted so much attention and concern. The charges against her are grave. There’s the extraordinary level of deliberate misinformation in Russia about the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and the ruinous state of relations between the two countries. Also concerning is the precedent set by last month’s show trial against Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov, which resulted in a 20-year prison sentence on patently absurd terrorism charges. Savchenko’s case is not the first that a defendant in a Russian court credibly claimed they were forced across the border.
Many international actors have repeatedly said she was detained illegally in Russia and demanded her release, but with little success.
Were it not for the large number of journalists and international observers, the hearing I observed would seem like any other. There was no irritation or anger from court personnel or judges, and the tension in the air was not more or less oppressive than at other criminal trials in Russia. And while we hope that Savchenko will actually get her right to a fair trial before an impartial tribunal, in this context, one fears that her fate has been sealed before the hearings even started. It remains to be seen whether Savchenko will see justice, or whether, like the apples of her mother’s orchard, the trial’s façade will conceal a hollow justice.