'They're not terrorists', says wife of Azov fighter after Russia designation


KYIV (Reuters) - As Russia's top court branded Ukraine's Azov Regiment a "terrorist organisation" on Tuesday, the wife of an Azov soldier held in Russian custody said she hoped the designation would not stop her husband and fellow soldiers eventually being released.

The court ruling paves the way for the soldiers who were captured defending the port of Mariupol from Russia's invasion to be tried under stringent anti-terrorism laws and jailed for up to 20 years.

In Kyiv, Alina, 22, who declined to give her surname for fear of repercussions for her husband, said he had been one of the fighters who held out for weeks in Mariupol's Azovstal steelworks until they gave themselves up in May.

"They defended themselves courageously. They showed all their power and strength, going beyond what was considered possible. They are not terrorists, they are heroes. What terrorists?" she said in an interview.

"I can only trust my gut and believe that this (verdict) won't affect their lives and that we will return all of them home," she said.

The regiment is lionised in Ukraine for defending the country and in particular Mariupol, but they are reviled by Russian President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin as a band of Russia-hating far-right nationalists.

The Azov Regiment, which has far-right and ultra-nationalist roots, is part of Ukraine's National Guard and evolved out of a battalion that was formed in 2014 and fought against Russian-backed separatists who carved out breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine.

Alina said her husband was held at Olenivka, a prison controlled by Russian-backed separatists where Moscow said 40 prisoners of war were killed last week in an attack that Ukraine and Russia blamed on each other.

"Since the (Olenivka) tragedy, I haven't had any contact with my husband. I could only wait and hope everything was all right. Then the Russian side started publishing their 'deceased' and 'wounded' lists. My husband wasn't in either of them, thank God," she said.

(Reporting by Stefaniia Bern; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Grant McCool)

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