Ukraine pilot faces verdict in Russian murder trial decried by Kiev

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Donetsk (Russia) (AFP) - Ukrainian helicopter pilot Nadiya Savchenko arrived in court Monday to hear the verdict in her high-profile murder trial in southern Russia, which Kiev and the West have slammed as a political sham.

The 34-year-old was flanked by Cossacks in military uniform as she entered a court ringed by gun-toting riot officers in Donetsk near the Ukrainian border.

Prosecutors are demanding 23 years in jail for Savchenko's alleged involvement in killing two Russian state TV journalists in war-torn eastern Ukraine. Few doubt that the combat helicopter navigator will be found guilty and Kiev is already pushing for a prisoner swap.

Ukraine and its Western allies see Savchenko's case as a political show trial and insist she is the latest pawn in the Kremlin's broader aggression against its ex-Soviet neighbour that saw Moscow seize the Crimea peninsula and fuel a separatist insurgency.

"Savchenko will be sentenced to a few dozen years, and there is no doubt about this," one of her lawyers Mark Feigin wrote on Twitter before the two-day court ruling.

"A propaganda machine is at work here, absent of justice and freedom."

Savchenko -- who has become a national hero at home and been elected to parliament in absentia -- insists she was kidnapped by pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine in June 2014 and illegally smuggled over the border into Russia before being slapped with false charges.

But authorities in Russia insist she was the "spotter" in the fatal shelling of Russian state journalists Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin, as she served in a volunteer pro-Kiev battalion fighting the insurgents, and must face justice.

Ukraine's pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko has pledged to do everything possible to bring Savchenko back home and has mooted a prisoner swap to free her.

Kiev is holding two men it says were Russian soldiers serving in eastern Ukraine, who could give Poroshenko a bargaining chip.

But Moscow is also thought to have at least 10 other Ukrainians behind bars -- including high-profile detainees like film director Oleg Sentsov -- and the Kremlin has given little hint it is ready to play ball.

- 'Russia can be crushed' -

Savchenko has struck a defiant figure throughout the long months of her detention, which saw her sent to a psychiatric hospital near Moscow before being transferred close to the border for her trial in the town of Donetsk.

She has repeatedly gone on hunger strike to protest her conditions -- fasting for more than 80 days at one point and going almost a week without food and water at another.

Usually dressed in a traditional Ukrainian blouse or pro-Kiev T-shirt, Savchenko has ridiculed the court from the glass defendant's cage and flashed her middle finger at the judges as the trial ended.

"All I can do is to show by example that Russia, with its overbearing state and totalitarian regime, can be crushed if you are not afraid or broken," Savchenko said in her closing statement.

Ties between Moscow and Kiev are already in tatters over the 2014 seizure of Crimea and the separatist insurgency in the east -- and the Savchenko verdict looks set only to worsen relations.

A complex political process to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine has stalled as Kiev and Moscow accuse each other of failing to live up to promises made in a peace deal signed over a year ago.

Russia has meanwhile thrust its way back to the centre of international diplomacy with its air campaign in Syria, prompting some in Kiev to fear the West might ease the pressure over Ukraine.

A harsh sentence for Savchenko could now refocus Western attention, however, and Kiev is pushing for sanctions to be slapped on some 40 people it says are "directly involved" in Savchenko's case.

Analysts say Moscow faces a hard sell if it wants to swap Savchenko to appease the West, since it cannot be seen to be bowing to outside pressure after demonising her in the media.

"They could try to swap her after giving her a tough sentence," Nikolai Petrov from Moscow's National Research University Higher School of Economics told AFP.

"But then (she) would have to be (swapped) for someone that can be made to seem worth it, in the eyes of the Russian public."

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