war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Russia guilty of ‘international armed conflict’ in Azov Sea & 24 Ukrainian POWs recognized as political prisoners

Halya Coynash

The renowned Memorial Human Rights Centre has issued an important statement in which it both confirms that the 24 Ukrainians seized by Russia on 25 November 2018 are prisoners of war and declares all of them political prisoners. Russia’s attempt to prosecute men it took prisoner as part of an international armed conflict is in flagrant breach of the Third Geneva Convention.

Memorial stresses that its assessment of the men as POWs and of the incident concurs with that taken by experts on international law.  Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea in 2014 is not recognized by international law, and nor are Russia’s attempts to claim that the 12-mile zone around Crimea’s shores constitutes its maritime border.   The charges laid against the men of ‘illegally crossing Russia’s state border as part of an organized group’ (paragraph 3 of Article 322 of Russia’s criminal code) have no legitimacy from the point of view of international law.  Worth noting that the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in the Hague has already recognized Russia’s occupation of Crimea as an international armed conflict, falling under its jurisdiction.

The UN Convention on Maritime Law, which Russia has ratified, does not allow countries to arbitrarily prohibit passage through straits to foreign vessels, and the Ukrainian-Russian agreement on cooperation in using the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait guaranteed full freedom of passage. Since both the Convention and the agreement are part of Russian law, this means that the Ukrainian boats did not commit any offence even according to Russian legislation.

According to international humanitarian law, sailors and officers cannot face criminal prosecution merely for the fact of their part in a military conflict.  They are protected by the Third Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War.

Memorial HRC therefore declares all 24 men to be political prisoners.  It demands that the criminal charges be dropped and the men released, and stresses that, until their release, they should be treated in accordance with the Third Geneva Convention.

Memorial HRC has not strictly said anything new about the men’s POW status, although it undoubtedly requires more courage for a Russian human rights NGO to spell out the truth about Russian aggression and the illegality of its occupation of Crimea.  The statement focuses only on those crucial points which are so damning for Russia and, refreshingly, does not waste time on presenting the events in a ‘Ukraine alleges, Russia denies’ format.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe was still fairly circumspect in its Resolution on “The escalation of tensions around the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait and threats to European security” passed on 24 January 2019, but it did confirm that the men’s treatment must be in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, including, of course, the Third on POWs.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has gone much further.  In its first quarterly report since Russia’s attack on 25 November 2018, OHCHR clearly stated that Russia is in breach of international humanitarian law and that the 24 Ukrainians seized on 25 November 2018 are prisoners of war.  This first report since the aggression, published on 11 March 2019, actually introduced a new section, entitled International Humanitarian Law violations.   

The authors explain that “on 25 November 2018, Ukrainian authorities reported an assault of the Russian Federation naval forces on three Ukrainian naval vessels near the Kerch Strait. which is the only passage between the Black Sea and the Azov Sea and lies between the Russian Federation and Russian Federation-occupied Crimea. <> The Russian Federation naval forces opened fire on the Ukrainian vessels, seized them, and captured 24 crew members (22 naval officers and two SBU officers).

The report then notes that “by virtue of the continued occupation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, an international armed conflict continues to exist between the two States in Crimea and international humanitarian law continues to apply there. As such, a single hostile encounter between the armed forces or assimilated armed units of two sovereign states, as the 25 November 2018 incident, suffices to trigger the application of international humanitarian law, irrespective of the pre-existence of an armed conflict.”

OHCHR “notes that based on the provisions of international humanitarian law, the 24 detained crew members could be considered as prisoners of war and protected by the Third Geneva Convention. In any case, they shall enjoy the status of a prisoner of war until a competent tribunal determines otherwise.”

Russia is continuing to ignore this.  As well as illegally transporting them to Moscow and trying to subject them to a ‘criminal investigation’, it is also applying punitive psychiatry by forcing the men to undergo psychiatric assessments.  Both the decision to seize and then ‘prosecute’ the naval seamen and their eventual release depend solely on the political will of those in the Kremlin, and in this sense it is fitting that the Memorial Human Rights Centre should have also recognized them all as political prisoners.

The 24 men have now been imprisoned for over five months, most of that time in the Lefortovo Prison in Moscow.  A team of lawyers, coordinated by Nikolai Polozov, was organized within 15 days of the men’s seizure, with the lawyers working in coordinated fashion to prevent the Russian authorities and FSB officers from confusing and disorientating the men.  This was particularly important given that the FSB were using all kinds of pressure and depriving them of contact with their families to try to get them to confess to having committed a crime or to give testimony against the others.   

They have failed, with all of the men insisting to both the investigators and the courts that they are under the protection of the Third Geneva Convention and are prisoners of war


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


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

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


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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