Ukrainian pilot on trial in Russia starts drinking water, but continues hunger strike: Lawyer

Activists in support of jailed pilot Nadiya Savchenko outside the Russian consulate in Lviv, western Ukraine, on March 9, 2016.
Activists in support of jailed pilot Nadiya Savchenko outside the Russian consulate in Lviv, western Ukraine, on March 9, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

MOSCOW (AFP) - Ukrainian military pilot Nadiya Savchenko, on trial in Russia over the killing of two journalists, has started drinking water but will continue her week-long hunger strike until the verdict, her lawyer said on Thursday (March 10).

"Nadezhda halted only a 'dry' hunger strike," lawyer Mark Feigin told AFP.

"She will be fasting until the verdict is announced," he said, using the Russian version of her name.

Her lawyers said on Wednesday that the health of the 34-year-old aviator had deteriorated significantly over the past few days and she was feverish.

The verdict in her case is due on March 21 and March 22.

Savchenko's defence team said she had decided to start drinking water following requests from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and other supporters.

"We very much value your will and resilience in the fight but there is no need for a hunger strike right now," Mr Poroshenko said in a letter to Savchenko provided by her lawyers.

"I want you to hear my request - we don't want your health to worsen," he said.

"The 'verdict' will be announced on March 21 but before that we will do a huge amount of work," he said, in a possible hint that Ukraine is in behind-the-scenes talks with the Kremlin on Savchenko's fate.

Mr Poroshenko said this week he is ready to exchange prisoners with Russia to secure Savchenko's release.

In her reply to Mr Poroshenko, Savchenko said she would start drinking water following an outpouring of support from Ukrainians.

"I have felt your pain, people, and until the verdict is announced I will switch from a dry hunger strike to fasting on water," she said in a handwritten letter released by her defence team.

Rejecting both food and water is called a "dry hunger strike" in Russia and was a method of last resort for some Soviet dissidents.

Savchenko launched her dry hunger strike last Thursday in protest at delays in her controversial trial. Her defence team says she now demands to be returned to Ukraine.

Savchenko is seen by her compatriots as a symbol of resistance against the Kremlin, accused of fuelling the conflict in eastern Ukraine which has claimed more than 9,000 lives since April 2014.

The prosecution wants a 23-year jail sentence for Savchenko over the killing of two journalists from Russian state broadcaster VGTRK in shelling in Ukraine's eastern Lugansk region in June, two months after the pro-Russia uprising began.

Prosecutors say she was involved in her capacity as a volunteer in a Ukrainian battalion.

But she says she was kidnapped even before the attack and smuggled across the border into Russia.

Her case has caused deep concern in the West, with both the EU and the United States saying she must be released immediately.