Monday 15 July 2019

Russia ordered to free detained Ukrainian men

A general view of the bridge that connects the Russian mainland with the Crimean peninsula, across the Kerch Strait. Photo: REUTERS/Pavel Rebrov
A general view of the bridge that connects the Russian mainland with the Crimean peninsula, across the Kerch Strait. Photo: REUTERS/Pavel Rebrov

Geir Moulson

A UN maritime tribunal ruled yesterday that Russia must immediately release three Ukrainian naval vessels captured by Russia in November and free 24 detained sailors.

The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea issued its order at its Hamburg headquarters following a hearing earlier this month. Russia stayed away from the hearing and yesterday's session. The confrontation in the Kerch Strait, which links the Sea of Azov with the Black Sea, marked a flashpoint in the simmering conflict over Russia's 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Russia seized Crimea in a move that Ukraine and most of the world view as illegal.

The Kerch Strait separates Crimea from the Russian mainland. Russia, which did submit a memorandum to the tribunal, has argued that the rights Ukraine claims in the case don't apply because they are covered by an exception for military activity.

Kiev's lawyers contest this claim, saying Russia has previously described the arrest as a law enforcement operation. The tribunal sided with Ukraine on that point.

However, President Jin-Hyun Paik said that "the tribunal considers it appropriate to order both parties to refrain from taking any action which might aggravate or extend the dispute".

He said that Russia must return the ships to Ukrainian custody and allow the servicemen to go home.

But the tribunal "does not consider it necessary to require [Russia] to suspend criminal proceedings against the 24 detained Ukrainian servicemen and refrain from initiating new proceedings," he added. Kiev had called for legal proceedings to be ended.

The tribunal's decisions are legally binding, but it has no power to enforce them. It called for both sides to report back on their compliance by June 25.

Paik said Russia "was given ample opportunity to present its observations" in the case. The tribunal made its decision by a 19-1 vote, with a Russian judge dissenting.

Olena Zerkal, Ukraine's deputy foreign minister for European integration, said on Facebook: "We expect that Russia will quickly and fully fulfil the tribunal's order."

Reuters

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