‘Time Running Out’ for Hunger Striking Ukrainian MP Held by Russia

Nadiya Savchenko
Nadiya Savchenko holds a sign inside a defendants' cage as she attends a hearing on February 10, 2015. The sign reads, "I was born Ukrainian, and I die Ukrainian". REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev

Time is running out for Nadiya Savchenko, the Ukrainian MP and former military pilot charged with aiding the murder of two Russian TV journalists, as she enters her 70th day on hunger strike in a Moscow prison, her lawyers have warned.

Savchenko, 33, was captured by pro-Russian forces last June after joining one of the volunteer battalions loyal to Kiev. Exactly where this happened is a matter of some dispute: the Ukrainian government claims she was abducted by pro-Russian separatists near Luhansk and handed over to the Russian authorities. Russia claims she crossed the border herself, posing as a refugee, and has charged her with aiding the killing of two Russian TV journalists who died in a mortar strike.

Following her capture, Savchenko has become an emotive symbol in Ukraine’s struggle against pro-Russian separatists. Much of the Ukrainian press treat her as a national hero, and her cause has made headlines around the world, while Russian media has painted her as a “killing machine in a skirt”. Ukraine’s government has repeatedly drawn attention to her plight. “Savchenko is a symbol of struggle for Ukraine," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said last October, when she was elected to the Ukrainian parliament despite her captivity.

Savchenko has been on hunger strike since December 13, when she weighed 75kg. She now weighs just 57kg, and is thought to be losing around half a kilo a day. Medics have warned that once she reaches 50kg her organs will be in danger of failing. Yesterday her lawyers confirmed that she has decided to refuse further glucose injections because of the swelling effect the continuous injections are having on her veins. She is now only drinking water, and has said that she fears being force-fed by Russian authorities.

“There is very little time left now,” says her lawyer Nikolai Polozov. “She is only alive thanks to her army training, willpower and courage. But even that is not infinite. If we do not urgently take action, we will witness the dramatic finale of this story.”

Savchenko last appeared in court on February 10, when the Russian authorities decided to extend her pre-trial detention to May 13. But her lawyers say she will not last that long. Next Wednesday,they will lodge an appeal against this extension, with the hope that Russia will bring the date of the trial forward, considering Savchenko’s rapidly declining health.

There has also been confusion and outrage surrounding two mysterious German medics who supposedly visited Savchenko last week and conducted an ultrasound of her internal organs. They apparently presented themselves as ‘experts on hunger strike’, but their report of her condition has yet to be made public, despite the extremely time-sensitive nature of her case.

“We have not seen their medical opinions,” says  Polozov, “but know that with them was the head of the remand prison and other officials. The prison doctors later said that Nadiya’s health is satisfactory. But no medical documents have been issued, despite our request.”

Savchenko herself has said she does not trust the words of the doctors who visited her and has turned to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, of which she is a member, in order to secure an independent medical examination by a team of doctors from Ukraine, Germany and other European countries.

The Ukrainian Kharkiv Human Rights Defence Group has even accused Germany of collaborating with Russia over Savchenko’s detention, arguing there has been a “secret agreement” between Russian President Vladimir Putin and German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. A report on their website read: “Since these ‘German doctors’ are reported to have agreed entirely with the conclusion of the Penitentiary Service and found Nadiya Savchenko’s state of health to be ‘satisfactory’, this secrecy raises some very serious questions about Germany’s role in the ongoing detention of the Ukrainian MP.” Ukrainian doctors have so far been refused access to Savchenko.

According to another member of her legal team, lawyer Mark Feygin, she is an illegal prisoner-of-war who should have been released as part of the Minsk peace deal hashed out last week. “She is in danger of her life, and pressure needs to be put on Putin to make the right decision here”, he says.

Savchenko, despite pleas and requests from her friends, families, lawyers, politicians and the European Court of Human Rights, refuses to stop the hunger strike. “She believes the hunger strike is the only way of countering the repressive machine of the Putin system,” says Polozov. “Her condition is immediate release from unlawful imprisonment, or death.”

Meanwhile Savchenko’s fiercely supportive fans and campaigners are continuing the fight for her release, and say that public pressure will do more to reach a favourable outcome for Savchenko than any diplomatic or political pressure.

Alex King, who started the online campaign #FreeSavchenko, says: “She’s a true fighter. She’s still independent in movement and speech but she is getting weaker by the day. Putin will only release her if it can benefit him in some way. He is quite happy to let her starve to death.”

A global day of action will be held on March 1 to raise the profile of her campaign further. Among her more high-profile supporters is Garry Kasparov, the Russian world chess champion and Chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation.

"The case of Nadiya Savchenko is a tragedy on a human level and also a serious crime,” Kasparov says. “It shows Putin's true colors, as a hostage-taker little better than ISIS, hoping to intimidate people and to exploit her suffering to gain leverage against Ukraine and the West. It shows that citizens of other countries, even officials, are not immune to the sort of justice the Russian people have been experiencing under Putin, from Mikhail Khodorkovsky to Sergei Magnitsky, to Pussy Riot and Alexei Navalny, and countless other political persecutions of people less well-known.”

“Putin needs to hang on to power at any cost, and Savchenko is another chip in his poker game with the West. She is particularly valuable because she represents the value of a human life, which means nothing to Putin and quite a lot to the others. If she is released it will be because Putin got something in return that matters to him."

Correction: This article originally stated that Russia accused Savchenko of manning a checkpoint when the Russian TV journalists were killed, based on a BBC report. This is disputed and so has been removed.