DONETSK, Russia (Reuters) - A Russian judge on Monday said Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko was complicit in the killing of two Russian journalists, an assertion certain to inflame already dire relations between Moscow and Kiev.
Savchenko, 34, was captured by pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine in June 2014 during the separatist conflict there and handed over to Russia where she was charged with directing mortar fire which killed two Russian journalists.
She has denied wrongdoing.
Regarded as a national hero by many in her homeland, Savchenko has been depicted by Russian state TV as a dangerous Ukrainian nationalist with the blood of civilians on her hands.
The United States and the European Union have called on Russia to free Savchenko, who has undertaken various hunger strikes to try to speed up her trial, on humanitarian grounds.
The judge, Leonid Stepanenko, told a courtroom in southern Russia that Savchenko had “deliberately inflicted death on two persons, acting according to a conspiracy and motivated by hatred and enmity.”
The judge later adjourned proceedings until Tuesday.
Savchenko is not being tried by jury and Russian news agencies said the judge’s words amounted to a formal guilty verdict.
Her lawyers, Mark Feygin and Nikolai Polezov, told Reuters this was only part of the summing up however and not yet a formal guilty verdict.
They have long asserted that Savchenko is the victim of a politicized show trial and would be found guilty. Prosecutors have asked the court for a 23-year jail sentence.
“We hope all this will end tomorrow,” Feygin told reporters after the end of Monday’s proceedings.
“Today, as before, we are convinced of Nadezhda Savchenko’s innocence, we have proved her innocent,” he said.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s spokesman called the proceedings “a farce,” saying Kiev would step up pressure on Moscow to release Savchenko who was elected a member of parliament while being held in Russia. Poroshenko’s wife called on Michelle Obama to join the campaign to free Savchenko.
Angry Ukrainians have pelted the Russian embassy in Kiev with eggs over her plight, while Russians have picketed the Ukrainian embassy in Moscow demanding justice for the dead journalists.
“It is like the inquisition. It is a kangaroo court,” Oleh Sobchenko, one Ukrainian man, told Reuters in Kiev.
Other Ukrainians interviewed said they felt the trial was about turning Savchenko into a bargaining chip for a future prisoner swap between Moscow and Kiev.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to raise the case with the Kremlin later this week in Moscow.
Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Alessandra Prentice and Margaryta Chornokondratenko in Kiev; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe and Richard Balmforth