24 Ukrainian sailors were arrested by Russia during an incident in the Kerch Strait, near Crimea in November 2018. They have been detained in Moscow since. The lawyer for one of them told Hromadske that something, in this case might change when the new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is sworn in.
He also emphasized that the legal defense has “zero chance” in Russian courts once the case becomes political and talked about the legal difficulties if the trial takes place in the Russian-annexed Crimea.
Talking on Hromadske’s “The Sunday Show”, Ilya Novikov, a lawyer of the captured sailor Roman Mokryak, said that “from the legal point of view, the Crimean peninsula is a black hole, it is a disputed territory from the point of view of international law. This is Ukrainian territory and no foreign diplomat and no journalists, but a few who can take a risk and go to Crimea … would attend a trial”. He said if the trial takes place in Crimea, the defense will face much more difficult conditions.
Novikov told “The Sunday Show” the status of the captured Ukrainian sailors could significantly change following the inauguration of Zelenskyy. He said there are rumors that their trial could start in October or November 2019.
In response to the alleged health complaints by some sailors, Novikov said that whenever Ukraine inquires of Russia about the provision of the necessary medical assistance to the sailors, Russia assures it all is provided. According to Novikov, Russia’s response barely changes with time - “be satisfied with it”. Thus, the lawyer noted, there is no progress in this regard.
Novikov also told about Russia’s reluctance to accept the jurisdiction of the international law of the sea in this case. According to him, during May 10 hearing in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, where Ukraine filed a claim against Russia for its detention of the seamen, Russia submitted a written response saying the jurisdiction does not apply in this case since it was a result of “military activities”.
The lawyer famous for cases of political prisoners in Russia, such as Ukrainian fighter pilot captured in Donbas, Nadiya Savchenko, called this “quite a good point” by Russia. However, he added that before, from the very first day, November 25, Russia has called it “merely a civil action, a police action, a law enforcement action”.
It is quite an important detail of this case: what will be the final position of the Russian government, because you cannot hold both positions - that it was law enforcement action and that it was military action - you have to choose one.
Commenting on the suggestion that the political will is needed to free the political prisoners in Russia, Novikov said that when the case turns political in Russia, the defense will become very difficult. “In other cases, we have a little chance of getting clients acquitted,” he said. Noting the importance of the political will in this case, the lawyer reiterated that the legal defense teams must still do “their homework”, to provide politicians with information in hope of achieving such political decisions.