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05.03.2019 | Halya Coynash

Still only ‘pinprick sanctions’ 100 days after Russia’s Azov Sea attack & seizure of 24 Ukrainian POWs

Four of the POWs held in a cage during a 'court hearing'
   

24 Ukrainian prisoners of war remain in Russian detention, 100 days after Russia’s attack on three Ukrainian naval boats near Crimea.  Russia’s behaviour was condemned by the international community but the sanctions thus far have been “like a pinprick to an elephant”, according to Nikolai Polozov, the coordinator of the lawyers representing the 24 POWs. 

The men are held in the Lefortovo SIZO [remand prison] in Moscow, with the FSB ‘investigators’ preventing them from receiving visits or phone calls from their families in Ukraine.  This is clearly part of the unabating psychological pressure that Russia is hoping will break the men. 

As reported, the FSB resorted to its standard (and illegal) methods at the very beginning, and forced three of the men to repeat on camera that they had ‘illegally crossed Russia’s state border’.  The men’s superiors responded from Ukraine with messages of support to the men, and a clear indication that the methods used to obtain such ‘confessions’ were understood. 

Most importantly, within 15 days of the men’s seizure, a team of lawyers had been organized, with one for each of the men.  Polozov explains that their first task was to prevent the Russian authorities and FSB officers from confusing and disorientating the men, especially given the “ferocious working-over” that they were being subjected to.  The FSB would hold ‘talks’ with each of the POWs, trying to get them to confess to having committed a crime or to give testimony against the others.  In some cases, ‘special’ cellmates were planted with the men.

“Our lawyers were able to explain to all of the POWs the position based on the Third Geneva Convention (relative to the treatment of prisoners of war).  All of the naval sailors have stated both to the investigators and the courts that they are under the protection of this Convention and are prisoners of war”.  During ‘investigative activities’ and court hearings, the lawyers have also added the important resolution passed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe which not only demands the men’s immediate release, but also states that they must be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, including that on prisoners of var.

Enormous effort has also been needed to ensure that the wounded POWs receive proper medical treatment, however it has finally, Polozov said, been successful.  The wounded men are due to be taken to a civilian hospital for examination and Polozov hopes that their treatment will be continued.

The lawyers are currently also putting together the first package of documents for individual applications to international courts, including the European Court of Human Rights.  The documents will be passed to the team of Ukrainian lawyers who will be responsible for preparing the applications. 

The men are holding up well, but this is a huge strain on them and their families, as is the case with the ever-mounting number of Ukrainian political prisoners held in occupied Crimea or Russia.

If Russia is still trying to pretend that the political prisoners were convicted of or are in detention on suspicion of committing ‘crimes’, any illicit extraction of ‘confessions’ from the seized seamen would achieve nothing.  Russia was evidently in breach of international law in ramming and shooting on the Ukrainian naval vessels on 25 November, and in taking the vessels’ crews prisoner. 

In fact Russia’s behaviour was so unequivocally lawless that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be looking for a way out of this mess.  This is the view taken by Ilya Ponomaryov, a former Russian State Duma deputy whose persecution began when he alone voted against Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

“I think that these sailors are more likely a problem for Putin. If he has a whole business with hostages and he quite consciously holds people in captivity so as to trade on the subject, in the case of the sailors, they are unwanted hostages. Now the whole world which was planning to soften sanctions will, on the contrary, make them harsher”, Ponomaryov says.

He believes that Putin has trapped himself.  If he were to recognize the men as POW, which Russia is presently refusing to do, then the same status should be recognized for other hostages, and that is recognition of war between Russia and Ukraine.  If he simply releases them, without recognizing them as POWs, then why can’t he do the same with Ukrainian political prisoners?  Since Putin cannot risk this, Ponomaryov believes he will have to wait until after ‘court sentences’. 

While there is no evidence that Putin is planning any other course of actions, this one does seem a clear loser.  Even had the men been in Russian territorial waters, and in fact, the boat that was badly damaged by Russian shelling was almost certainly in international waters, there would still have been no excuse for Russia’s behaviour.

All commentators, including Polozov and UNIAN correspondent in Mosocw Roman Tsymbalyuk, are in no doubt that a political decision is needed and that this must come from Putin.  It seems extremely unlikely that this will happen before the Presidential elections on 29 March since Putin has made it quite clear that he will do nothing that would give good publicity to the current President and one of the candidates, Petro Poroshenko. 

Both Tsymbalyuk and Polozov do, however, believe it possible that a release could be arranged closer to the parliamentary elections in the autumn, with the aim being to help one of the pro-Russian candidates, most likely Putin’s good friend, Viktor Medvedchuk.

By then the men would then have been in captivity for almost a year.  This is a lot less than many of Russia’s political prisoners, as well as the Ukrainian soldiers held prisoner by the Russian-controlled militants in occupied Donbas, but almost a year too long. 

Russia’s actions on 25 November 2018 were described by many high-level commentators as an act of open warfare, and violation of international law.  More is needed than stern words and some largely symbolic personal sanctions.

PLEASE WRITE TO THE MEN!

Getting any letter is an important message to them – and to Moscow – that they are not forgotten.

Letters need to be in Russian, unfortunately, and will be passed by the censor, so please avoid any mention of their cases, politics, etc. 

If writing in Russian is problematical, there is an example letter below which you could send, together with a picture, or similar. 

The list of all the prisoners

(the names are in Russified form, which has more chance of getting past the censor)

Artemenko, Andrei Anatolyevych, 1994

Bezyazychny, Yuri Yuryevych,  b. 1990

Bezpalchenko, Viktor Anatolyevych, b. 1987

Budzylo, Yuri Aleksandrovych,  b. 1973

Chuliba, Sergei Romanovych, b. 1992

Drach, Andrei Leonidovych, b. 1994

Eider, Andrei Dmitrievych, b. 1999

Holovash, Bohdan Olegovych, b. 1996

Hrytsenko, Denis Vladimirovych, b. 1984

Kostishin, Vladislav Anatolyevych, b. 1994

Lisovy, Vladimir Vladimirovych, 1984

Melnychuk, Oleg Mikhailovych, 1995

Mokryak, Roman Nikolayevych, 1986

Nebylytsa. Bohdan Pavlovych, b. 1994

Oprysko, Andrei Andreyevych, b. 1971

Popov, Sergei Nikolayevych, b. 1991

Semidotsky, Yevgeny Vitalyevych, b. 1998

Shevchenko, Andrei Anatolyevych, b. 1991

Soroka, Vasily Viktorovych, b. 1991

Tereshchenko, Vladimir Anatolyevych, b. 1994

Tsybizov, Sergei Andreyevych, b. 1997

Varimez, Vladimir Konstantinovych, b. 1992

Vlasyuk, Mikhail Borisovych, b. 1984

Zinchenko, Viacheslav Anatolyevych, b. 1998

Address

Russia, 111020 Moscow, Lefortovsky Val, No. 5. PO Box 201, SIZO-2

Then each name, as above, with their year of birth

Letter

Добрый день,

Желаю Вам здоровья, мужества и терпения, надеюсь на скорое освобождение.

Мы о Вас помним.  

[Hello, I wish you good health, courage and patience and hope that you will soon be released.  You are not forgotten. 

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