The most significant escalation in tensions between Ukraine and Russia since the outbreak of the war in Donbas and the illegal annexation of Crimea was the November 25 attack on Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch Strait. The event triggered the introduction of martial law in certain regions of the country, and, for a short period at the end of 2018, Ukraine was on high alert for further provocations.
While Russia’s maritime advances in the Black and Azov seas may no longer be making headlines, the 24 Ukrainian sailors captured near the Kerch Strait that evening remain the prisoners of war. Moscow refuses to acknowledge the navy officers’ prisoner of war status as stipulated in the third Geneva convention. They are all currently on trial and have had their appeals dismissed.
Hromadske gathered a whole range of experts involved in the case, including some of the lawyers representing the sailors and the human rights activists supporting them, to discuss how and when the men will return home.
One of the main problems in the ongoing trial is the limited access the lawyers have to their clients. As Ilya Novikov, lawyer to captured sailor Roman Mokryak, comments, they “lack one of the most important things in the present situation – we lack the possibility to visit our clients on a regular basis.”
He adds that the lawyers generally do not know when the next time they will have access to clients. At best, they meet only once a week.
Another issue the legal teams face is the Russian side’s refusal to cooperate or even act in a lawful manner. Lawyer Nikolai Polozov told Hromadske that “there’s no way that the Russian courts, the Russian investigations will grasp the problems, examine the evidence which the defense presents.”
The reason for this is the politicized nature of the case. And this is how the defense is presenting the case in court, Polozov adds.
“The strategy is based on the fact that, if there was the political will to arrest them, then they must be released because of that political will."
Member of the Association of Veterans of the Ukrainian Navy Serhii Shumskiy also commented on the political aspect of the case.
“The problem is, I would say a bit deeper than just a humanitarian law violation. It might be a case, or a sign, of how contemporary Russia recognize current Ukraine – whether they recognize us as a country,” he states.
The most concerning aspect of the sailors’ detention, however, is the fact Russia is violating one of the most important, internationally recognized norms on the imprisonment of prisoners of war – the third Geneva convention, of which Russia is a signatory.
The sailors’ protection under the Convention was invoked in a resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE,) which was passed on January 24.
Russia does not regard the sailors as prisoners of war, as they believe the sailors were not captured during an active war. The lawyers disagree.
“Where war is not officially declared, but when a military conflict takes place, any military person captured as a result of military action will be regarded as prisoners of war,” Novikov explains.
While Russia’s maritime advances in the Black and Azov seas may no longer be making headlines, the 24 Ukrainian sailors captured near the Kerch Strait that evening remain the prisoners of war.
Shumskiy agrees that the sailors should be treated as prisoners of war. He comments that they were treated like “pirates” during the capture.
“These guys should not be treated as ordinary people, they are military personnel, they did their duties and they did their duties according to international law,” Shumskiy told Hromadske.
Aside from the legal issues, there are also concerns over the health and wellbeing of the 24 sailors. Three of them were injured in the attack, and, according to their lawyers, they are not receiving appropriate medical care and there is a concerning absence of any official documentation on their state of health.
“The big problem is that we have no officials reports on the state of their health, they have not been given to either the defense, or the the lawyers of the injured prisoners of war, or the Ukrainian authorities,” Polozov comments.
The sailors do appear to be receiving some form of medical care but the details are hazy at best. Polozov describes how one sailor, Andriy Artemenko, was treated.
“He underwent some medical procedures, they used medical equipment on him. although he was not told what was being done to him, he did not give informed consent for these or any procedures to be conducted on him. They did not tell him the results,” Polozov comments citing Artemenko’s lawyer.
According to human rights defender Bohdan Kryklyvenko, this is a recurring aspect of Russia’s treatment of all Ukrainian political prisoners, citing the case of Pavlo Gryb.
“This is the same scenario, rooted in the Kremlin, that political prisoners should be isolated and just kept alive, without normal conditions for medical assistance,” he comments.
What’s more, there have also been reports of psychological pressure and underhand tactics being applied on the imprisoned sailors.
Both Novikov and Polozov state that FSB operatives regularly visit the sailors for questioning, in which they try and extract confessions and testimonies against their fellow prisoners of war.
“With a number of them, so-called 'in-cell investigations' are being carried out, where a cellmate is specially planted [in a cell with them],” Polozov comments
“We cannot ensure that our clients will be untouched and not approached people from the FSB,” Novikov adds.
Russian volunteer Victoria Ivleva shares the same views of the FSB.
“I would say that the FSB people could do whatever they want to do in this country and there's nothing that we can do to stop them. The only thing we could do is to support the sailors,” she comments.
Unlike medical and compliance with international humanitarian law, support for the sailors’ plight is one thing that has not been lacking.
Ivleva and her group of volunteers in Russia regularly collect 300-kilogram food parcels to send to the prisoners of war. And activist Leyla Omer set up the Beraber Foundation for Support of Prisoners of War after reading an impassioned Facebook post from Crimean journalist, calling for people to raise money for cigarettes for the sailors. The foundation was created when the crowdfunding raised at impressive 12,000 euros.
But support for the sailors is not just the responsibility of civil society.
“The state has to support. The navy and society too – society has to support too. It must be together,” Pashayev comments.
Support has also come from abroad – most importantly from international institutions and western partners. In addition to the PACE resolution, UN Secretary General António Guterres also received at 25,000-signature petition calling for the sailors’ release.
“The question relates to continued work on difference international platforms – I mean UN, Council of Europe, OSCE – who can really have some influence,” Kryklyvenko adds.
/Interviews by Nataliya Gumenyuk, text by Sofia Fedeczko