Russia’s attempt to justify its seizure of 24 Ukrainian prisoners of war on November 25 by bringing criminal charges against the men has hit major hurdles. All of the men are rightly insisting that they are POWs, and the commander of one of the naval vessels has refused to talk to the so-called “investigator” until his men are released. How can Russia bring criminal charges against his subordinates when they were simply obeying his orders?
Russia is denying that the men are prisoners of war, citing the rather bizarre argument that they cannot be POWs since Russia and Ukraine are not formally at war. They should have considered this before attacking and seizing Ukrainian naval vessels and their crews. In fact, the situation is really quite unequivocal. According to the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War, if military or naval servicemen were in service, wearing uniforms and insignia, and were seized as the result of an act of aggression, they are unquestionably prisoners of war.
Roman Mokryak, 32, is commander of the Berdyansk, the naval vessel that came under direct fire. His lawyer, Ilya Novikov, reported on December 12 that Mr. Mokryak has demanded that the “investigators” treat him and his men as prisoners of war. Mr. Mokryak further stated that he would not give any testimony to the Russian authorities until they released his men who were simply carrying out his orders. He argues that he is the commander and he alone answers for what happened aboard his vessel.
The other lawyers representing the captured sailors confirm that they too fully understand that they are prisoners of war and have no intention of yielding on this point.
Nikolai Polozov, who is coordinating the work of all the men’s lawyers, met with his POW Denis Hrytsenko on December 11. Mr. Hrytsenko thanked everybody for their help and support, especially the Crimeans who had specially come to Moscow, driving through the night to bring the huge amounts of food, clothes and other items collected.
“He doesn’t doubt for a moment that the entire country is fighting for his freedom and that of the other men, even despite the total isolation that they are in,” Mr. Polozov observed.
The three POWs who were wounded when the Berdyansk came under fire – Andriy Eider, 19; Andriy Artemenko, 24; and Vasyl Soroka, 27 – are imprisoned separately, at Matrosskaya Tishina SIZO (remand prison).
Maria Kurakina is representing Mr. Artemenko and reported on her first visit on December 12. Mr. Artemenko has splinter wounds to his right hand and fingers, as well as to his body. Slag from the firearms also got into his eyes, and Ms. Kurakina believes there are grounds for concern about his vision.
The lawyer also noted one suspicious detail, namely, that some woman, claiming to be a lawyer, has turned up together with the “investigator.” She did not give her name, asserting that it was hard to understand. Ms. Kurakina gave the young man advice on what to do in such situations and says that it will be discussed by the team of lawyers.
It was expected from the outset that the FSB would attempt various forms of pressure and manipulation, including through “lawyers” foisted on the men, to try to break them down. This is standard FSB practice, seen constantly with Ukrainian political prisoners. Since Russia has no excuse for holding the men prisoner and is in grave breach of the Geneva Convention by bringing criminal charges, the FSB can only hope to use illegitimate methods to force the men into saying that they “illegally crossed the border.”
Russia has failed to convince the rest of the world that the events on November 25 were a “Ukrainian provocation.” Its aggression has been strongly condemned; however, for the moment, suggestions for robust measures to combat its ongoing blockade of the Azov Sea are in the form of European Parliament resolutions and similar measures. It is excellent that the Europarliament has called on the European Union to close access to European Union ports for Russian ships coming from the Azov Sea, but the resolution is not in any way binding.
At present, the Kremlin is hearing only words of “deep concern,” which it has heard and ignored many times before.
The situation now is, in fact, even worse. Russian President Vladimir Putin has not particularly concealed his wish to see Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko ousted in the coming presidential elections. He publicly spoke of his refusal to speak with his Ukrainian counterpart about the attack on November 25, claiming that he “didn’t want to be part of Poroshenko’s election campaign.” Within hours of the attack, Russian propaganda media were pushing the (to date unexplained) claim that this was all a Ukrainian “provocation” aimed at enabling Mr. Poroshenko to introduce martial law and cancel the elections.
Martial law was imposed in only some oblasts and for only a month, meaning that the elections could continue. Nonetheless, the Russian propaganda drive continues.
It has long been clear that Mr. Putin views political prisoners, as well as the POWs and civilian hostages held by Russia’s proxy “republics” in the Donbas, in very much the same way as a kidnapper, with the question being whether the “ransom” is good enough.
Now, however, the situation is different. Although he did not openly say that he would avoid any releases of prisoners to prevent helping Mr. Poroshenko, that also seems likely.
Russia is holding almost 100 political prisoners or POWs in occupied Crimea and Russia, and that number is increasing all the time. There are also over 100 hostages held in the Donbas. Pressure is urgently needed on Western governments to ensure that real measures, not just words of deep concern, are used to stop this banditry.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group is suggesting that supporters write to the 24 Ukrainian POWs. Information on who the POWs are and how to write to them may be found here: http://khpg.org/en/index.php?id=1 544713687.