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The Russian tanker Nika Spirit in the port of Izmail

ODESA, Ukraine -- A Ukrainian court has formally approved the seizure of a Russian tanker that was detained by Ukrainian authorities at the Danube River port of Izmail last week, Ukraine's Chief Military Prosecutor Anatoliy Matios said on July 30.

According to documents posted on social media by Matios, the court in Ukraine's southern city of Odesa issued the ruling on July 29 regarding the seizure of the tanker Nika Spirit.

"The court seized the said vessel," Matios said. "We did it legally."

The Russian vessel was seized on July 25 by Ukraine's SBU security service and the Military Prosecutor's Office for its alleged involvement in an incident in November 2018 off the coast of Ukraine's Russia-occupied Crimean Peninsula.

The SBU says the Russian tanker is material evidence in a case over the November 2018 Kerch Strait incident, alleging that the tanker was used to block three Ukrainian naval ships as they attempted to transit the Kerch Strait from the Black Sea to reach the Sea of Azov.

The Russian Navy fired at the Ukrainian ships in the altercation and seized the vessels along with 24 Ukrainian sailors on board.

Russia continues to hold the Ukrainian sailors in detention and plans to put them on trial, despite a May 25 ruling by the United Nations' Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea that Russia must "immediately" release the sailors and Ukrainian ships.

Russia has said the international maritime tribunal has no jurisdiction. It claims the Ukrainian ships illegally entered Russian territorial waters when they were off the coast of Russia-annexed Crimea.

The UN tribunal's decisions are legally binding, but it has no power to enforce them.

The Russian Embassy in Ukraine told TASS on July 30 that Russia's consulate-general in Odesa has lodged a note with Ukraine's Foreign Ministry demanding explanations for the seizure of the Russian tanker.

Ukrainian investigators seized documents on board and questioned its 10 crew members. The 10 Russian crew members were later released and were allowed to return to Russia.

The embassy said Russia has "not received any official documents" from Ukraine concerning the seized tanker and has not yet replied to the diplomatic note.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, Interfax, and TASS

MINSK -- A man was sentenced to death in Belarus for double murder on July 31, despite repeated calls by the European Union for the abolition of capital punishment in the only European country that still carries out executions.

The Minsk-based Vyasna (Spring) human rights group says a court in the eastern city of Vitsebsk found the defendant, Viktar Paulau, guilty of murdering two elderly women in late December and sentenced him to death.

The court established that Paulau beat to death the two retired sisters in a village near Vitsebsk and stole cash and alcoholic beverages from their house.

Paulau, 50, told the court he regretted his deed and begged for his life to be spared.

He is the second Belarusian sentenced to death this year after 36-year-old Alyaksandr Asipovich received the death penalty in January for killing two girls in 2018.

For years, the EU has urged Belarus to join other countries in declaring a moratorium on capital punishment.

According to rights organizations, some 400 people have been sentenced to death in Belarus since it gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Human rights groups say Belarus carried out one execution in January, one in November, and two executions in May 2018.

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