MOSCOW — A Russian court appeared Monday to lay the groundwork for a guilty verdict against a Ukrainian helicopter pilot nicknamed Ukraine’s “Joan of Arc,” Russian news agencies reported, wrapping up a trial over the 2014 deaths of two Russian journalists that has revived memories of Stalin-era show trials.
There was, however, initial confusion over the official court decision. Some Russian state-run outlets rushed to report that Lt. Nadiya Savchenko, 34, had been found guilty.
But state-run Rossiya 24 television later said that the judge had merely announced that he had heard enough evidence to convince him of her guilt before launching into an extended reading of the charges against her.
Such pro forma readings can sometimes last hours — or even days — and it was not immediately clear whether the judge would deliver the final ruling Monday. While the judge’s language during this review of the evidence may indicate whether or not the defendant will be pronounced guilty, the verdict and sentence are only officially delivered at the end of the session.
Savchenko had been accused of helping the Ukrainian army target the shelling that led to the June 2014 deaths of two Russian journalists in eastern Ukraine at the height of fighting there.
Little known before her capture, Savchenko has since become a national symbol of resistance in Ukraine and a target for Russians to focus their anger about the killing of eastern Ukrainian civilians. During Savchenko’s long imprisonment, she was elected a member of the Ukrainian parliament in absentia. She has always denounced the legitimacy of the Russian court and says she was abducted and spirited into Russia unwillingly.
The court in Russia’s Rostov region, which borders eastern Ukraine, found Savchenko guilty of aiding and abetting two journalists who worked for Russian state-run television.
The court proceedings have been widely condemned by Western leaders, and last week Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that he would try to get the European Union to issue sanctions against a roster of officials involved in her detention.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry condemned the trial ahead of the verdict, and it is possible that she will be on the agenda when he visits Moscow this week to discuss the cease-fire in Syria. The front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, has also announced her concern for Savchenko’s well-being.
Western officials and members of Savchenko’s defense team have said they expect the guilty verdict may set the stage for a prisoner exchange, possibly for two alleged Russian servicemen on trial in Kiev for fighting alongside separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Poroshenko, asked about a possible trade for Savchenko at a press conference earlier this month said: “As the president of Ukraine, using my constitutional rights, yes, it is possible. I am ready to swap so Nadiya Savchenko can come home.”
The Kremlin has denied that an exchange for Savchenko has been discussed with Kiev, and a Foreign Ministry spokesman has said that any discussions of an exchange could not take place before a verdict was delivered in Savchenko’s case.
Spy swaps are an established tradition in Russia’s relations with the West. In September, Russia exchanged an Estonian security official, Eston Kohver, a little over one month after he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for espionage charges.
But it is unclear that a similar agreement could be hammered out in the case of Savchenko, both because of the severity of the charges against her and the extremely tense relations between Moscow and Kiev at the moment.
Ukraine has also demanded that Russia hand over several other Ukrainian nationals recently convicted of terrorism charges, including Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film-maker sentenced to 20 years in prison on terrorism charges. Amnesty International said the case was “redolent of Stalinist-era show trials.” Sentsov is still in prison in Russia.
The court proceedings were the highest-profile in Russia since the 2012 trial of Pussy Riot, the feminist punk bank that was convicted of hooliganism for a brief performance in a Moscow church where they insulted Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Russian court plans to announce the sentence Tuesday. Prosecutors have asked for a sentence of 23 years.
Savchenko’s lawyers said Monday that she plans to resume a hunger strike and refuse liquids to protest of the verdict.
Andrew Roth contributed to this report from Moscow.