Most of the crew was eventually released. But the ship's captain and second in command, Mykola Mazurenko and Ivan Soschenko, respectively, were brought to trial. The two men denied knowing that the 1,100 tons of oil on board the "Navstar-1" were banned for export. But in October, an Iraqi court sentenced the men to seven years in jail, and fined $1.2 million each.
Since then, Mazurenko and Soschenko -- both in their sixties and suffering from poor health -- have been languishing in Baghdad's Abu Ghurayb prison complex. Infamous under Saddam Hussein as a place where opponents of the regime were routinely tortured and murdered, Abu Ghurayb is at the heart of a new controversy involving systematic abuse of Iraqi detainees by U.S. forces.
Mazurenko and Soschenko's wives told RFE/RL they have been unable to speak to their husbands by phone since February. Mazurenko's wife said her husband had complained of a sinister atmosphere at Abu Ghurayb, saying he was being held in cramped conditions and that prison guards had attacked some detainees.
A spokesman for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said diplomats had not been able to visit the two men in some time because of continued fighting between coalition forces and Iraqi insurgents.
At the end of April, the Ukrainian ombudsman for human rights, Nina Karpachova, asked the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, John Herbst, for his country's diplomatic support to enable Ukrainian diplomats to visit the two sailors and assess their conditions. Karpachova reiterated her call last week, after the Abu Ghurayb abuse photographs had been aired. She said she "could not exclude absolutely" that the two Ukrainians were not being subjected to similar treatment.
Patricia Guy, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, said embassy officials were looking into the matter. "We have seen the letter from ombudsman Karpachova about the 'Navstar' crewmen and we are inquiring into the situation of the Ukrainian seamen," Guy said.
Guy said the U.S. government condemned the way some of its soldiers had treated the Iraqi prisoners, but she said the situation of the two sailors was different. "We have no information suggesting that the crewmen are not receiving proper care. If we were to receive such information, we would address these concerns with the appropriate authorities," she said.
Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Markiyan Lubkivskiy said the U.S. military allowed Ukrainian diplomats on 2 May to visit Mazurenko and Soschenko, who were deemed to be in satisfactory condition. "According to the information that our diplomats got directly from the Ukrainian sailors, there are no complaints about the behavior towards them of other prisoners or the guards," Lubkivskiy said.
He said the two sailors had been transferred to slightly better conditions than the ones they were initially held in. However, he said the conditions were still extremely grim. "Mazurenko and Soschenko have been transferred to a cell for older people," Lubkivskiy said. "There are 56 people in that cell -- you can imagine they all sleep on mattresses on the floor next to one another. Therefore, conditions are not straightforward even from the point of view of their accommodation. Even though from the point of view of food, the information we get is that they receive food regularly and there are no complaints on that count."
Lubkivskiy said that the health of the two men is poor. The ministry spokesman said Captain Mazurenko, who is 66, is at particular risk, because he suffers from diabetes but reportedly is only able to receive medicine when his symptoms become acute. "The state of their health in these conditions and the understandable stress they are undergoing causes us concern," he said. "They do not have regular contact with doctors. Doctors have restricted access to the prison. Therefore, we are troubled by this situation and we have called the attention of both the Iraqi transitional government and the effective [U.S.] authorities to the situation of our sailors."
Lubkivskiy said the two men, who are awaiting a second appeal of their sentence, have become a top priority for the Foreign Ministry. He said Ukraine, which is contributing 1,650 troops in Iraq, hopes the United States will lend its weight to help the two sailors in their forthcoming appeal.
"The Iraqi courts will have the last word. But at the same time we rely on the support of the Americans as our partners in the coalition. I think that they are listened to and their role and their influence will not be the least important factor in the resolution of this issue," he said. Lubkivskiy hopes that even if the appeal is unsuccessful, a deal can be worked out to allow the two sailors to serve their prison sentences in Ukraine.