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Ukrainian sailors remanded in custody

Igor Burdyga
November 29, 2018

A group of 22 Ukrainian sailors was arrested following the clash between Ukrainian navy vessels and Russia's coastal guard in the Sea of Azov on Sunday. They could face long jail terms in Russia. DW spoke to the lawyers.

Ukrainian navy ships seized by Russia
Image: Reuters/A. Dmitrieva

After the clash between Russia's coastal guard and Ukrainian naval vessels in the Sea of Azov on Sunday, Russia arrested 22 Ukrainian sailors. Courts in Simferopol, in Russia-annexed Crimea, have now ruled that the sailors from Ukrainian gunboats "Nikopol" and "Berdiansk" and tugboat "Yany Kapu" must remain in pre-trial detention until January 25, 2019.

Two Ukrainian counter-espionage agents, who were captured as well, will remain in custody, too. Russia's domestic security agency FSB accuses them all of having deliberately trespassed into Russian territorial waters. Accordingly to Russian law, this is punishable by up to six years in jail.

Sunday's incident unfolded when Ukraine naval vessels sought to pass through the Kerch Strait, which connects the Sea of Azov with the Black Sea but were prevented from doing so by Russia's coastal guard. One Russian vessel rammed a Ukrainian ship, Ukrainian vessels came under fire, and several sailors were injured. Kyiv has described the incident as an act of Russian military aggression, whereas Moscow claims Ukrainian ships illegally entered Russian territorial waters.

Seeking legal representation

Russian journalist Anton Naumlyuk, who is closely following the court case against the sailors, says it has proven challenging for them to get legal representation. Most lawyers who have expressed willingness to represent the men have a history of defending Crimean Tatars and Russian activists in similarly politicized court cases. Sergey Legostov is one of them. He confirmed to DW that he will be meeting his client in jail.

Map of Sea of Azov, Crimea, Ukraine, Russia

Three injured sailors were not provided with independent lawyers, Alexej Ladin of the Agora International Human Rights Group told Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. A court based in the city of Kerch ruled that the men, who are hospitalized, would be jailed.

Captured sailors in good health

Ludmila Lubina, Russia's commissioner for human rights on the Crimean peninsula, told journalists the injured men were in a stable condition and would be released from hospital in the next few days.

Lawyer Ayder Asamatov told DW that all uninjured Ukrainian military personnel had been transferred to Simferopol and placed in pre-trial detention. "They are kept in regular cells, but in groups, which allows them to give each other support."

Lawyer Oksana Shelesnyak describes her client Serhiy Zybisov's condition as "normal." The other lawyers have similar accounts from their respective clients. But Shelesnyak stresses that her client was put under psychological pressure in the days following his arrest. Ukrainian sailor Zybisov is one of three men who has allegedly admitted to Russian media that they knowingly trespassed into Russian territorial waters. 

Read more: What you need to know about the Sea of Azov conflict

None of the men have, however, admitted to this in court. Some of the Ukrainians arrested have refused to give testimony by invoking Article 51 of the Russian constitution. And the former captain of Ukrainian tugboat "Yany Kapu" succeeded in having authorities provide an official interpreter to translate court proceedings from Russian to Ukrainian.

Prisoners of war?

Some of the men have said they do not believe a civilian court should try them, as they consider themselves to be prisoners of war. Ukraine's government shares this interpretation as well. And Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said this would mean his compatriots should not be tried under Russian law, but according to the principle of the Geneva Conventions. 

The sailors' lawyers have made similar claims before the court but their arguments were ignored. Lawyer Djemil Temyshev, meanwhile, said it would not be possible to coordinate the defense of all Ukrainian sailors, adding that "it is likely they will all be transferred to Moscow," as Russia's federal authorities tend to take charge in prominent political cases.  

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