On November 22, a court in Tajikistan released two foreign pilots, including a Russian citizen, who two weeks earlier had been sentenced to lengthy terms in jail. The release of Vladimir Sadovnichy, a Russian citizen, and Alexei Rudenko, an Estonian citizen, has been prompted by an unusually strong backlash from Moscow that threatened to ruin Tajikistan’s economy.
Sadovnichy and Rudenko were flying their Antonov-72 cargo planes from Afghanistan to Russia on March 12 when Tajik air traffic controllers denied them permission to land for refueling at the Qurghonteppa (Kurgan-Tube) Airport in southern Tajikistan. The pilots landed their aircrafts anyway, claiming that they did not have enough fuel to return to Kabul. After the landing, the crews of the two planes were placed by State Committee for National Security (GKNB) forces in a hotel where they were held for about two months. In May, Tajik authorities formally arrested Sadovnichy and Rudenko, but released the rest of the crew. Following a trial that had been kept mostly low-profile, the two pilots were on November 8 found guilty of smuggling, violating international aviation regulations, and illegally crossing Tajikistan’s border. They were each sentenced to eight and a half years in prison and the planes were confiscated as “physical evidence”.