Anxious families greet 24 Ukrainian sailors in Moscow court as arguing continues
The anxious mothers of 24 Ukrainian sailors lined the corridors of Moscow’s Lefortovo District Court on Wednesday, desperate for a glimpse of their sons.
They hadn’t taken the train all the way to the Russian capital expecting miracles.
This was a purely procedural hearing to extend the captured sailors’ pre-trial detention another three months.
But at least it was a chance for them to see their boys; to blow them kisses across the courtroom; even to hold them just briefly as they were frog-marched past by masked guards.
The sailors have already spent the best part of five months in Moscow’s Lefortovo jail.
It is where high-profile prisoners go and these ones are.
Their capture and arrest after a naval skirmish in the waters off Crimea last November caused an international outcry.
In March, the EU, US and Canada imposed additional sanctions on six Russian individuals and eight entities in response to what they called Russia’s unjustified attacks on Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch Strait and its continued and ongoing aggression against Ukraine.
It hasn’t made a difference. The sailors are still behind bars.
“There are 24 mothers here who are waiting to hug their sons,” Liubov Chuliba told me, her eyes filled with tears.
“To feel your dearly beloved, the most treasured thing you have.”
I asked the group what message they had for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The answers poured in – deferential but imploring.
“We would be very thankful to him if he would bring our boys back home,” one replied.
“He has children himself, his mother must have the same kinds of concerns we have.
“We ask, we beg, please… take our side, listen to us.”
Ukraine’s human rights commissioner, Lyudmyla Denisova, had travelled up by train with the families.
Easily identifiable in a long pink coat, she went from mother to mother, to the sisters and fathers who’d travelled up too, offering reassurance and dried fruits to keep the spirits and sustenance up.
Just the kind of human touch her role is all about.
Ms Denisova told me she’d lobbied hard for access to the sailors.
But meetings with her human rights counterpart, as well as letters to Russia’s investigative committee and to the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, have all so far proved fruitless.
“Russia thinks our sailors have broken their borders,” Ms Denisova said.
“They think Crimea is a part of Russia and we as well as the rest of the world think it belongs to Ukraine.
“Our military sailors didn’t break any laws.”
As far as Ukraine is concerned, the sailors are prisoners of war.
Russia disputes that, claiming this is a criminal matter and that Russia and Ukraine in any case are not in a state of armed conflict.
Ukraine now wants the case to be heard by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).
Russia’s foreign ministry claims ITLOS does not have jurisdiction and that the case should be handled at a bilateral level.
The arguing continues.
If convicted, these men face up to six years in jail. But a trial is still a long way off.
Wednesday was about small victories such as the fiancée of one of the sailors making a request to the court to marry her man in Lefortovo jail; the applause for the sailors as they came and went from each courtroom; and the relief of 24 mothers at the sight of their sons and of the sailors’ grins at the support they were receiving.
Tatiana Schevchenko flicked through some photos she’d managed to show her brother Andrey through the bars in the courtroom.
One was of Ukraine’s President Petro Poroschenko giving a medal of military service to Andrey’s wife and one of the baby daughter he hasn’t seen for months.
“Most of the sailors didn’t even know they’d been given medals,” Ms Schevchenko said.
“This is the first of her daddy’s medals that his little girl will receive.”
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