Photo by Roman Tsymbaliuk

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has said Ukrainian sailors captured by the Russian Federation in the Kerch Strait could be considered prisoners of war (POWs).

"Ukrainian crew members apprehended by Russian authorities in the Kerch Strait on November 25, 2018 could be considered as prisoners of war and protected under the Third Geneva Convention," the OHCHR said in a report on the human rights situation in Ukraine from November 16, 2018 to February 15, 2019.

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It is reported the Russian Federation, the occupying power in Crimea, has still not granted OHCHR access to the peninsula in line with UN General Assembly resolution on the territorial integrity of Ukraine 68/262 and resolutions 71/205, 72/190 and 73/263.

"OHCHR monitors the human rights situation on the peninsula from mainland Ukraine. The Russian Federation continues to apply its laws, in violation of international humanitarian law applicable to an occupying power, resulting in grave human rights violations, disproportionately affecting Crimean Tatars," reads the report.

UNIAN memo. On the morning of November 25, Russia blocked the passage to the Kerch Strait for the Ukrainian tugboat "Yany Kapu" and two armored naval boats "Berdyansk" and "Nikopol," which were on a scheduled re-deployment from the Black Sea port of Odesa to the Azov Sea port of Mariupol.

The Ukraine Navy Command noted that the Russian side had been informed of the plans to re-deploy the vessels in advance in accordance with international standards to ensure the safety of navigation. The Russian coast guard ship "Don" rammed the Ukrainian tugboat, damaging the Ukrainian vessel.

As the Ukrainian boats were heading back in the Odesa direction after being rejected passage via the Kerch Strait, Russian coast guards opened aimed fire on them.

All 24 crew members on board were captured and later remanded in custody for two months, being charged with "illegal border crossing" (the sailors are facing up to six years in prison).

Three crewmen were wounded in the attack.

Russian-controlled "courts" in occupied Crimea ruled that all 24 detainees should be remanded in custody, after which they were transferred to the Moscow-based Lefortovo and Matrosskaya Tishina detention centers. Moscow's Lefortovo district court in the middle of January 2019 ruled to keep the Ukrainian sailors in remand until the end of April 2019.