Russia increases torture conditions for most Crimean and other Ukrainian political prisoners
Three new Russian laws, recently signed into force by Russian President Vladimir Putin, will make imprisonment for the ever-mounting number of Crimean and other Ukrainian political prisoners convicted of so-called ‘extremism’ or ‘terrorism’ even harsher. The conditions that the men are held in now are already equivalent to torture and are in several cases putting their lives in danger.
The package of three laws was signed by Putin on 27 December 2018, after being put forward by deputies from the ruling ‘United Russia’ party only a month earlier. The amendments introduced in the three laws mean that people convicted of something called ‘public calls to terrorism, its public justification or propaganda’ will have to serve a part of their sentence in a prison where the conditions are significantly worse than in the normal ‘corrective colony’.
Two Ukrainians are currently in detention in occupying Crimea and could face long sentences on these charges. Nariman Memedeminov is a civic journalist active in the civic initiative Crimean Solidarity, which reports on repression in Crimea, as well as providing support for political prisoners and their families. His arrest in March 2018 was part of an ongoing offensive against Crimean Solidarity. Russia has used perfectly harmless videos posted on YouTube before Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea as pretext for charging Memedeminov with ‘public calls’ to terrorism.
Both videos pertain to Hizb ut-Tahrir, the peaceful pan-Islamist movement which is legal in Ukraine and which is not known to have committed an act of terrorism or violence anywhere in the world. Russia’s Supreme Court declared it ‘terrorist’ in 2003, without providing explanation, or an opportunity to appeal the ruling. It is now sentencing Muslims in occupied Crimea, as well as in Russia, to huge terms of imprisonment merely on unproven claims that they are ‘involved’ in an organization that has never committed any crime.
The charges against left-wing activist Yevhen Karakashev are based solely on material posted or reposted on social media, and appear just as politically motivated (details here).
Men convicted of alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, or, officially, under Article 205.5, of ‘organizing or taking part in the activities of a terrorist organization’, will have to spend at least a year in a prison, not a prison colony, after sentence is passed. This is regardless of how long (how many years in most cases) a person has already spent in SIZO [remand prison] where the conditions are shocking and tantamount to torture.
Russia began its persecution of Crimean Muslims, using Hizb ut-Tahrir charges, under Article 205.5, back in January 2015. By now, four Crimean Tatars are serving sentences in Russian prison colonies, including Ruslan Zeytullaev, whose huge 15 year sentence took the FSB three attempts to obtain. Four other Crimean Tatars from Bakhchysarai were recently sentenced to terms from 10 to 17 years. Their appeal has not yet been heard (more accurately, rejected, since these ‘trials’ are essentially for the paperwork, with ‘judges’ at the very most giving lower sentences than those demanded by the prosecutor. A further 20 Crimean Muslims are held either in Crimea or in Russia, awaiting ‘trial’ and sentence.
Many of the men were evidently arrested for their human rights activism (especially Emir-Usein Kuku) or involvement in Crimean Solidarity, and all are imprisoned effectively for their faith. As well as huge sentences, they are now also facing even more stringent conditions, held with many prisoners who may have committed murders or other violent crimes.
The third law will make it impossible for prisoners convicted under a number of articles of the criminal code pertaining to supposed ‘terrorism’ or ‘extremism’, to be imprisoned in their own region. This has, in fact, already been the case with most prominent Ukrainian political prisoners, like renowned filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko, whom Russia is holding as far away from their homes, foreign diplomatic missions and the media as Russia’s vast landscape allows. Since Russia is flouting the UN’s International Court of Justice and not removing its ban as ‘extremist’ on the Mejlis, or representative assembly, of the Crimean Tatar people, and has also declared the Jehovah’s Witnesses ‘extremist’, this law could affect them also, as it will all those convicted of the fabricated ‘Crimean saboteur’ cases.
Russia has already been holding 20-year-old Pavlo Hryb in custody for 18 months, after abducting him from Belarus and accusing him on highly dubious grounds of encouraging a young Russian to plant a bomb in her school. There was no bomb, nor is there any evidence that there was any plan to plant one, yet this has so far proven immaterial in all Russia’s political trials of Ukrainians. In this case, Russia is also ignoring a grave medical condition that Hryb has suffered from since childhood. His life is in direct danger in the SIZO, and any worsening of the conditions only increase the likelihood of haemorrhaging which could prove fatal.
These new conditions will now apply to all those whose sentences come into force after 28 December 2018. That includes all of the following:
Men accused of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir
Enver Mamutov, Rustem Abiltarov, Remzi Memetov and Zevri Abseitov (who are at appeal stage)
‘Tablighi Jamaat’ – an apolitical and peaceful Muslim movement which Russia has claimed is ‘extremist’
Two men accused of ‘sabotage’ – academic Oleksiy Bessarabov and retired Naval Sea Captain Volodymyr Dudka (details here)
Probably Edem Bekirov (see: Russia’s imprisonment of disabled Crimean Tatar activist is a death sentence without a crime or trial
These, it should be stressed, are not the only political prisoners in occupied Crimea, only those directly affected by these new laws.