U.N. court rules Russia must free detained Ukraine ships, sailors


A U.N. maritime tribunal ruled Saturday that Russia must immediately release three Ukraine Navy vessels captured by Russia in November and also free the 24 sailors it detained.

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 both the hearing and Saturday’s session.

The confrontation in the Kerch Strait, which links the Sea of Azov with the Black Sea, marked a flash point 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 but which gives Russia a much bigger shoreline along the Black Sea.

The Kerch Strait separates Crimea from mainland Russia.

Russia, which did submit a memorandum to the tribunal, argued that the rights Ukraine claimed in the case do not apply because they are covered by an exception for military activity.

Kiev’s lawyers contested this claim, saying Russia itself previously described the arrest as a law enforcement operation. The tribunal sided with Ukraine’s argument on that point.

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

He said 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,” Paik 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 fulfill the tribunal’s order.”

In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry did not address the details of the order but underlined its argument that the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea’s dispute resolution procedures cannot be applied to this dispute.

In subsequent arbitration proceedings at the tribunal, “we intend to consistently defend our position, including the lack of jurisdiction,” it said.