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#FreeSavchenko: Ukranian Pilot's Hunger Strike in Russian Prison Hits Ninth Week

An anonymous image of Nadiya Savchenko circulated online.

An anonymous image of Nadiya Savchenko circulated online.

Ukrainian military pilot Nadiya Savchenko, one of the first women to enter Ukraine’s air force, was captured by Russia-backed militants in Donbas in June 2014 and later charged in Russia with complicity in the killing of two Russian journalists during a military operation.

Since her arrest, Ukrainian and international activists have held multiple campaigns in her defense, and the 33-year-old was even elected to the Ukrainian parliament in absentia. Savchenko herself launched a hunger strike on December 13, 2014, in protest of what she considers an unlawful imprisonment.

Yet, none of these measures seemed to have brought her release any closer. As she enters her ninth week without eating, concern for her health is mounting and her fate remains uncertain.

Savchenko was first captured by pro-Russian rebels in the Luhansk region of Ukraine, a June 19 interrogation video suggests. She then appeared in Russian court on July 3 and has remained in Russian detention since, on charges of assisting the Ukrainian military in carrying out an attack that killed two Russian journalists in Donbas.

Her lawyer claims that she was captured before the journalists died and the charges were filed later. Billing data from Savchenko’s mobile phone reportedly supports her alibi.

Months after her arrest, Savchenko was elected and sworn in as a member of the Ukrainian parliament. She consequently resigned from the Ukrainian army, and in December, she was confirmed as a member of the Ukrainian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and granted international diplomatic immunity.

Although some hope had remained that the charges against her would be dropped due to her alibi and worldwide pressure, Russian authorities filed a new charge against her in January, this time into allegedly crossing over the Russian border illegally.

Many observers have pointed out that prosecutors failed to mention Savchenko's capture by Donbas militants and questioned the idea of her being released by her captors and ‘voluntarily’ crossing into Russia as a refugee. 

Savchenko has been celebrated as a national hero in Ukraine and come to symbolize both the Kremlin's injustices against Ukraine and the country's defiant resistance. In Russia, media outlets have vilified Savchenko by presenting her in increasingly coarse terms, calling her “Satan's daughter” or the “killing machine in a skirt”.

One of Savchenko's lawyers, Nikolai Polozov, tied the possibility of new charges against Nadiya announced by the prosecutors in October with her respected status in Ukraine:

The logic of Russian authorities is the following: oh, so she's the hero of Ukraine, oh, so you have elected her as a [member of parliament] – well, there you have yourselves another case.

A screencap of Savchenko's interrogation by pro-Russian militants in Ukraine. Video published on YouTube on June 19, 2014, by user aigu guillotine.

A screencap of Savchenko's interrogation by pro-Russian militants in Ukraine. Video published on YouTube on June 19, 2014, by user aigu guillotine.

Campaigns for her release

Savchenko does count support in Russia, however. Russian Human Rights Center “Memorial” has recognized Savchenko as a political prisoner, Russian journalists have begun collecting signatures for her release, and several people demonstrated in her defense in Moscow.

Human rights defenders and the Ukrainian government have continuously called on the Russian government to free Savchenko, and international institutions, including the European Parliament and PACE, have demanded her release.

Activists inside and outside Ukraine have held at least two notable social media campaigns aimed at Savchenko's release. The first campaign used the #SaveOurGirl hashtag and produced over 15,000 tweets worldwide, while the second one utilized the #FreeSavchenko hashtag and peaked on the date of PACE's resolution with about 400,000 tweets and over 50 rallies in 33 countries worldwide.

An infographic by EuromaidanPR portraying the number of tweets and location of rallies demanding the release of Nadiya Savchenko during January 26 campaign.

An infographic by EuromaidanPR portraying the number of tweets and location of rallies demanding the release of Nadiya Savchenko during January 26 campaign.

Hunger strike

On December 13, 2014, Savchenko went on hunger strike. About a month later, she wrote an open letter explaining her resolve that has circulated widely on social media:

Well, a person who was born free and not a slave in captivity cannot live in prison. Especially if he or she is innocent. […] I have given my word: ‘Until the day I return to Ukraine, or until the last day of my life in Russia!’ and I will not back down, otherwise what value would my words have?!

The @GlasnotGone Twitter account, set up to appeal for Savchenko's freedom, tweeted both a Ukrainian version of her letter and its English translation to international media:

Her lawyers have used social media to publish updates on her deteriorating health. On January 23, Mark Feygin reported on Twitter:

I just left Nadezhda Savchenko's SIZO-6 [detention center]). She continues her hunger strike and will not stop. Prison doctors have told me that no one before her had continued on hunger strike for over 40 days.

On February 2, another lawyer, Ilya Novikov, shared a hand-made sketch of what Savchenko looked like on that day:

Nadya says hello to everyone. She looks very grim here, but don't believe it — it's all my [poor drawing skills]. The colors and pencil shading are all hers.

Drawing on the popular parallels between Savchenko's situation (her first name meaning ‘hope’ in Ukrainian) and that of Ukraine, poet, writer and translator Andrij Bondar summed up the worries of many Ukrainians in a February 4 Facebook post:

Неймовірно, якими іноді надіями себе гріє людина. Надія Савченко, яка перетнула нещодавно позначку в 50 днів, повільно вмирає. Медики знають, як відбуваються оці так звані страшні “незворотні процеси”, як атрофуються та відмовляють органи, які жахливі збої відбуваються в організмі, гормони, кров, шлунок, печінка, селезінка, кістки…
[…]
І страшно подумати, що ще сьогодні, ще завтра, навіть через 10 днів щось можна змінити. Але вже, наприклад, числа 15 чи 20 лютого може бути пізно, фатально пізно.

Савченко теж сам-на-сам із байдужістю системи. Тільки тепер за історією Надії Савченко спостерігає весь світ. І нічого не може вдіяти. Нічого. Найточніша метафора України – ця смілива і принципова жінка. Надія вмирає. Надія ще не вмерла.

Unbelievable, what hopes we sometimes choose to console ourselves with. Nadiya Savchenko, who's recently crossed the 50-day mark [of a hunger strike] is slowly dying. Medics know how so-called “irrevocable processes” take place, how body's organs begin to atrophy, what horrible failures happen in one's organism, hormones, blood, stomach, liver, spleen, bones…
[…]
And it is terrifying to think that still today, tomorrow, even in 10 days from now something could change. But, already, let's say on the 15th or 20th of February, it would be too late, fatally late.

Savchenko is one-on-one against the system's indifference. But the whole world is watching. And there is nothing it can do. Nothing. The most accurate methaphor for Ukraine is this brave and principled woman. Nadiya is dying. Nadiya is still alive.

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