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Russian-occupied Crimea is ‘Not Free’ & rates close to North Korea in Freedom House report

Halya Coynash

In Freedom House’s annual report for 2019, Crimea under Russian occupation is classified as Not Free, with a pitiful score of just 8/100.  This is down one point since 2018 and much lower than in the occupying state’s own country, with Russia also Not Free, but 12 points higher, at 20/100.  Mainland Ukraine, on the other hand, is classified as Partly Free and received 60/100 (a fall from 62/100 in 2018). 

Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2019 report comes just over a week before the Council of Europe has in all seriousness proposed a change in its regulations in order to remove the sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 over its invasion and annexation of Crimea.  If the honourable members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe [PACE] vote for these changes, they will be turning a blind eye, not only to Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian territory, but to the catastrophic deterioration in fundamental human rights and ever-mounting number of political prisoners.

Freedom House first assessed Russian-occupied Crimea separately in its 2015 Freedom of the Press Report, and found it one of the ten ‘worst of the worst’.  It explained then that “the aggressive efforts by Russian and Russian-installed local authorities to establish control over what had been a fairly pluralistic media landscape meant that conditions in 2014 were worse than in Russia itself. Independent outlets were forcibly shut down, transmissions of Ukrainian stations were switched to broadcasts from Russia, and many journalists fled Crimea to escape harassment, violence, and arrests.”  The same aggressively repressive measures have since been used against Crimean Tatars and, in fact, any Ukrainians who express views that Russia doesn’t like.

In its overview, FH writes that “the occupation government severely limits political and civil rights, has silenced independent media, and employs antiterrorism and other laws against political dissidents. Many Ukrainians have been deported from or otherwise compelled to leave Crimea. Members of the indigenous Crimean Tatar minority, many of whom vocally oppose the Russian occupation, have faced particularly acute repression by the authorities.”

A result of 8 out of 100, a mere 5 points higher than North Korea, means that the list of rights which are flagrantly violated is too long to briefly summarize.  With respect to ‘political pluralism’, the authors of the report make it clear that there is none.

“Ukrainian political parties are banned, allowing Russia’s ruling party and other Kremlin-approved factions to dominate the political system. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the local police, and pro-Russian “self-defense” units use intimidation and harassment to suppress any political mobilization against the current government or Russia’s annexation of Crimea.”

“As in Russia, the authorities in the territory consistently crack down on opposition political activity. Crimean Tatars have continued to voice dissent and openly oppose the Russian occupation, but they risk harassment, arrest, and imprisonment for their actions. Other opposition figures also experience intimidation and police surveillance.”

“Russia’s occupation authorities deny full political rights to all Crimea residents, but Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians are regarded with particular suspicion and face greater persecution than their ethnic Russian counterparts.”

“Since the occupation began, the Russian government has taken decisive steps to solidify ethnic Russian domination of the peninsula and marginalize the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar communities. The elimination of the Ukrainian language from school curriculums and the closure of most Ukrainian Orthodox churches since 2014 are indicative of this attempt to Russify the population.

Russian and local pro-Russian officials’ policies and actions in Crimea have led to an influx of hundreds of thousands of people from Russia, including Russian troops, civilian personnel, and their families.”  Political persecution has also led to many ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars being force to leave Crimea.

The authors point also to the severe curtailing of media freedom In Crimea, freedom of association, and also infringements of religious freedom, in particular with respect to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose faith Russia has banned, Muslims, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (formally the Orthodox Church under the Kyiv Patriarchate) and others.

“The FSB frequently opens criminal cases against those who criticize the occupation and the oppression of Crimean Tatars.”  The prosecution of Volodymyr Balukh is cited as an example, as well as that of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko.  

The report mentions the shocking sentences of four Crimean Tatars from Bakhchysarai in December 2018 on charges of alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, but is perhaps a little too brief on the subject of prosecutions which have become a major instrument in Russia’s repressive machine in occupied Crimea.  Russia’s FSB are accusing men of ‘involvement’ in Hizb ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamist movement which only Russia has called ‘terrorist’ without providing any grounds.  It is not simply that Ukraine does not regard Hizb ut-Tahrir as terrorist, but that the movement is legal in Ukraine. 

It seems likely that the subject of such ‘Hizb ut-Tahrir prosecutions’ will receive more attention in next year’s report, since the huge wave of new arrests almost certainly came after the report had gone to print.  It became evident from 2016 that Russia was using Hizb ut-Tahrir prosecutions against rights and civic activists, however this intensified in October 2017, and reached frightening proportions on 27 March 2019 and shortly afterwards when 24 Crimean Tatar civic activists, most of them from the civic initiative Crimean Solidarity were arrested.  The charges are of supposed involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, however it is clear that this is an attack on Crimean Solidarity and on activists and civic journalists informing the world about what is happening in Crimea and seeking to help the victims of repression.

Russia is now holding at least 85 Ukrainian political prisoners from occupied Crimea, with 55, including many civic activists, facing sentences of 10-20 years’ imprisonment.  It is also still holding the 24 prisoners of war seized when it attacked three Ukrainian naval boats in the Kerch Strait on 25 November 2018.  This is despite a direct order from the UN’s International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea that the men be released immediately.

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