Ukrainian pilot could 'die within days' in Russian jail

An electoral poster bearing a picture of Nadiya Savchenko is seen in Kiev on October 21, 2014 (AFP Photo/Genya Savilov) (AFP/File)

Moscow (AFP) - A Ukrainian airforce pilot, who has been on hunger strike in a Russian prison for 77 days, "could die within days," a member of the Kremlin's human rights council said Friday.

Nadia Savchenko, a 33-year-old helicopter navigator, who has been charged with involvement in the deaths of two Russian reporters in a mortar attack in east Ukraine, has been held in a Moscow jail for nearly nine months.

Savchenko denies the charges and says she was kidnapped and brought to Russia. She launched a hunger strike on December 13.

She has refused glucose drips for the past two weeks.

"Over the past days her health sharply deteriorated," Yelena Masyuk, a member of the Kremlin's rights council, said in an open letter released on Friday.

"She's now experiencing serious problems with her internal organs," said Masyuk, who visited the Ukrainian on Thursday.

"Nadezhda Savchenko can die within days," she said, using the Russian version of her name.

Masyuk urged the head of President Vladimir Putin's human rights council, Mikhail Fedotov, to appeal to the authorities to place the pilot under house arrest, suggesting she be held at the Ukrainian embassy or an apartment in Moscow.

"It is not in our power to release Nadezhda Savchenko but we have a right to appeal to those who can change her pre-trial restrictions," she said. "This would save her life."

- Appeal to investigators -

Few expect Savchenko, who has described herself as "very stubborn," to relent and end her hunger strike.

Masyuk warned that Russia risked another round of Western sanctions and further isolation if the Ukrainian pilot died.

"There is a list for Magnitsky, who died in a Russian jail, (and) there would also be a list for Savchenko," Masyuk said, referring to the notorious death in pre-trial detention of whistleblowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

Magnitsky's death from untreated pancreatitis, after almost a year in jail, became a symbol of prison abuse in Russia.

Washington passed the Magnitsky Act, blacklisting Russian officials believed to have been implicated in the lawyer's 2009 death.

A council spokeswoman, Varvara Osipova, said Fedotov had seen Masyuk's letter and that the council had already sent an appeal to the Investigative Committee, which reports directly to Putin.

Russian prison authorities insisted that Savchenko's health was "stable."

Earlier this week a court threw out an appeal for her release. At the court hearing the Ukrainian appeared exhausted and rested her head on the table.

One of her lawyers, Ilya Novikov, said she now weighed 55 kilogrammes.

"She believes she can last for another two weeks," he told AFP, adding that doctors who had recently inspected her believe that her health could quickly deteriorate.

The EU delegation to Russia said in a statement Thursday that Russia bore responsibility for Savchenko's "very fragile health" and called for her release on humanitarian grounds.

-'Hope is dying'-

Savchenko is one of the first Ukrainian women to train as an air-force pilot. She served as a peacekeeper in Iraq for six months.

In an interview with a Ukrainian newspaper in 2009, she said she could go without sleep for five days and had no problem sleeping "in one room with 25 guys."

In Ukraine, she has become a symbol of resistance against Russian aggression.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko raised her fate during peace talks with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin in Minsk this month.

In October, Savchenko won a seat in the Ukrainian parliament, standing in absentia for the party of ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Prominent Russian writer Vladimir Voinovich on Thursday warned Putin not to let the pilot die.

"If Savchenko dies, it would be better for you not to appear in Western capitals," he said.

Earlier this week more than 11,000 people petitioned Putin to release the aviator, whose first name means "hope."

Opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which helped collect the signatures, said on Friday she had gone without food for 77 days.

"Hope (Nadezhda) is dying."