The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has said that Ukrainian crew members apprehended by Russian authorities in the Kerch Strait on 25 November 2018 could be considered as prisoners of war and protected under the Third Geneva Convention, according to its Report on the human rights situation in Ukraine 16 November 2018 to 15 February 2019.
"In any case, they shall enjoy the status of a prisoner of war until a competent tribunal determines otherwise. OHCHR recalls that prisoners of war must inter alia be humanely treated, protected against violence or intimidation, and provided with the medical assistance if needed," the report reads.
It also notes that "a single hostile encounter between the armed forces or assimilated armed units of two sovereign states, as the 25 November 2018 incident, suffices to trigger the application of international humanitarian law, irrespective of the pre-existence of an armed conflict". "Consequently, the rules of international humanitarian law that are applicable to international armed conflict continue to apply," it adds.
As reported earlier, on 25 November, the Ukrainian Navy's small armoured artillery boats Berdyansk and Nikopol, as well as the Yany Kapu tugboat were sailing from the Black Sea port of Odea to Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. Four Russian coast guard ships intercepted the group near the Kerch Strait. The Russian border ship, Don, rammed the Ukrainian tugboat, damaging it.
The Ukrainian naval group decided to continue their journey since they were acting within the framework of international maritime law. When the boats approached the Kerch Strait, Russia announced that the passage was closed.
The Ukrainian crews then reversed and started moving towards the exit from the strait, but the Russian ships began the pursuit. They opened fire and eventually captured the ships and their crews. On 27-28 November, a Russia-controlled court in Crimea arrested all the Ukrainian sailors, including the injured ones, for 60 days. They were accused of "illegally crossing the Russian border". The arrests have been extended several times since then.