14 Ukrainian seafarers who were arrested off Libya in 2017 have finally returned home. None of them were ever formally charged with a crime, but officials in Tripoli held them for more than three years.
The Ukrainian crew and their ship, the product tanker Ruta, were intercepted by Libyan Navy forces in April 2017 and detained for allegedly smuggling a cargo of diesel. The Libyan Navy asserted that an armed confrontation occurred during the interdiction, according to outlet Libya Akhbar.
“All 14 crew members were held in a cramped cell and they had to sleep in shifts,” said the Ukrainian seafarers’ charity Assol in a statement. “The incarceration conditions and psychological pressure had an effect on the sailors’ health. Two of them contracted hepatitis. Several others saw their chronic illnesses aggravated.”
It took years of appeals from Assol and other aid organizations to secure the seafarers’ release on bail. After the prisoners threatened a hunger strike, a court approved their release and they were repatriated with a flight to Kiev.
The Ukrainian government also played a role in their return: earlier this year, Ukraine appealed to Libya to release all detained Ukrainian nationals due to the risk of COVID-19 in the Libyan prison system.
“Our task is to return Ukrainian citizens. I am very glad that after almost three and a half years behind bars in Libya, 14 members of the crew of the Ruta tanker returned home. I am happy for them, for their families,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a statement.
The four Ukrainian crewmembers of the tanker Captain Khayyam – which was arrested in Libya in early 2016 – still remain in captivity, a spokesperson for Assol told Kyiv Post.