March 25, 2016 / 12:06 PM / 4 years ago

Ukrainian lawyer of captured Russian soldiers found dead

KIEV (Reuters) - The body of a lawyer of two Russian servicemen on trial in Ukraine has been discovered on the grounds of a former farming collective, prosecutor Anatoly Matios said on Friday, saying two men were in custody in connection with the lawyer’s death.

Yevgeny Yerofeyev (R), a Russian soldier arrested last May on terrorism charges related to the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, talks to his lawyer Yuriy Grabovsky from a glass-walled cage as he attends a court hearing in Kiev, Ukraine, November 17, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

Yuriy Grabovsky was part of the legal team representing the two Russians arrested last May on terrorism charges related to the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine. Their case has garnered extra attention because of Ukraine’s wish to exchange the servicemen for Ukrainians detained in Russia, including pilot Nadezhda Savcheko.

Grabovsky went missing in early March and on Thursday evening police launched a search for his body based on information from one of two men detained over his disappearance, Matios said in a briefing.

Matios said Grabovsky’s body had been found at 0400 local time (0200 GMT) during a police excavation of land on a former farming collective.

“Provisionally, I can say that ... (he) was killed in a violent way and finished off with a firearm,” Matios said, adding that the lawyer had been robbed and also had an explosive device attached to his leg.

Matios said he could not provide detail on possible motives but later said that it was in Russia’s interest for the servicemen’s trial to be delayed.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement that blamed Ukrainian authorities for failing to protect Grabovsky, who they said had become a victim of anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine because of his role defending the Russian servicemen.

“Despite all warnings, Kiev authorities were still unable or unwilling to guarantee Grabovsky’s safety,” the ministry statement said.

Russia denies sending troops to help separatist fighters in east Ukraine and says the two Russians — Alexander Alexandrov and his commander, Captain Yevgeny Yerofeyev — had quit their special forces unit to go there independently.

Earlier this week Matios said the Russian servicemen’s case would continue despite Grabovsky’s absence, but the men would not be physically present during the trial in the interests of security. Grabovsky was one of a team of lawyers representing the defendants.

On Tuesday President Petro Poroshenko said that Ukraine would be willing to hand over the two servicemen provided that Russia returned Ukrainians, including Savchenko, who has been sentenced to 22 years in jail for alleged involvement in the killing of two Russian journalists.

Reporting by Alessandra Prentice and Alexei Kalmykov; Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow; Editing by David Goodman

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