Lawyer For Detained Ukrainian Sailor Decries 'Political Trial'

A lawyer for one of the Ukrainian sailors detained by Russia on November 25 off the Russia-occupied Ukrainian region of Crimea has said the case against the seamen was "a political trial."

"We understand that this is a political case and not just some random person or ship that supposedly violated the claimed territorial waters of the Russian Federation," lawyer Edem Semdelyayev told RFE/RL on November 29. "It is precisely a political trial involving these sailors and ships. Why this has been done -- what the purpose is -- of course, we will find out eventually."

Semdelyayev is representing Oleh Melnychuk, captain of the military tug Yani Kapu and one of 24 Ukrainian seamen detained by Russia in the incident, which ratcheted up tensions in the Sea of Azov region as an ongoing conflict simmers between Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Russia has charged the men with illegal border crossing by a group of individuals acting in collusion, or by an organized group, or with the use of or the threat to use violence.

Russian courts in the occupied Black Sea region of Crimea have reportedly ordered them all to be held pending trial for two months.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has demanded the handover of all three Ukrainian military vessels and their crew, and martial law has been imposed in 10 Ukrainian regions that mostly border Russia or the Sea of Azov to allow increased security measures that so far include a ban on entry to Ukraine for Russian men aged 16-60.

Semdelyayev told RFE/RL his client plans to appeal both the charges filed against him and the order to hold the sailor in custody.

"He considers himself completely innocent and is ready to prove that," Semdelyayev said. "He insists upon his innocence. He understands that they have ended up in this situation merely because of a confluence of circumstances."

'Like In Hollywood Films'

The lawyer said that Melnychuk told him the Ukrainian vessels reached a staging point where the Russian Coast Guard promised to send them a pilot to guide them through the Kerch Strait passage en route to the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.

"Having waited at the rendezvous point for nearly seven hours, they concluded that they were not going to be allowed to proceed and no pilot was coming, they were ordered to return to Odesa," Semdelyayev said. "When they had already begun to return and had traveled a certain distance, the pursuit and all the other events began, including the ramming and the capture of the ships."

Semdelyayev added that Melnychuk told him the Ukrainians were detained "very roughly, like in Hollywood films."

Russia and Ukraine concluded a treaty in 2003 that calls for sharing the Sea of Azov, but Russia has built up its naval forces in the region since occupying Crimea in 2014 and this year stepped up its harassment of Ukrainian shipping in the area.

Semdelyayev confirmed that three injured Ukrainian sailors were being held in the Crimean city of Kerch. The other 21 were in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, where they had been examined by doctors and were said to be in "normal physical and emotional condition."

He added that the detainees have had minimal contact with their relatives.

"My client was allowed to say literally two or three words to his father after he was detained to tell him that he was OK," Semdelyayev said. "There have been no other [direct] contacts with relatives. They have been able to exchange some information through lawyers."

U.S. President Donald Trump has canceled a planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, due to take place during this weekend's summit for the Group of 20 industrialized nations in Argentina, over Russia’s seizure of the Ukrainian vessels.