A court in Tajikistan freed on Tuesday the Russian and Estonian pilots sentenced to eight and a half years in jail for smuggling and border violations after two weeks of diplomatic and economic wrangling with the Russian authorities.
Vladimir Sadovnichy and Estonian national Alexei Rudenko were arrested after flying into southern Tajikistan in March and jailed on November 8. Moscow said the charges were “politically motivated” and deported several hundred Tajik migrant workers, a move it denied was connected to the case.
Prosecutor Azim Azimov, who earlier said the sentence was “too harsh,” asked the court on Tuesday to reduce the term to two and a half years. He also suggested the pilots be released in amnesty ending on December 1 as they had already spent six months in custody.
After four hours of consideration, the court granted the appeal from the prosecutors and lawyers for the pilots.
“The main thing is that I am free, the rest will be later,” Sadovnichy said hugging his son for the first time in the past six months.
“I thank everyone who helped set us free,” he added.
Sadovnichy thanked his family and Dmitry Kabayev of the Russian Embassy in Tajikistan.
“After I met him in person, I understood that Russia is with me and it won’t forsake me,” said the pilot, who was later driven from the court to the Tajik capital Dushanbe in an embassy car.
The Russian Foreign Ministry hailed the court decision. “The Russian Foreign Ministry welcomes the Tajik court’s decision to release Russian national Sadovnichy from custody,” the ministry said.
Indrek Kiverik, press attaché for the Estonian Embassy in Moscow, said on Tuesday that Estonia had started dealing with Rudenko’s case following a request from his relatives. After the Tajik court announced its original verdict, Estonian diplomats intensified cooperation with the Russian side, he added.
The case demonstrated once again Russia’s attempts to retain its one-time domination over former Soviet republics by using political and economic levers. Over half of poverty-stricken Tajikistan’s GDP is made up of money migrant workers send home from Russia.