24.08.2015 | Halya Coynash

Accused of “provoking the police to use force” by waving a Ukrainian flag


Update:  Two detained in Russian-occupied Crimea for laying flowers at monument to Taras Shevchenko  As of early afternoon on Ukraine’s Independence Day two members of the Ukrainian Cultural Centre in Russian-occupied Crimea have been detained and taken to the Simferopol police station.  One of their colleagues Veldar Shukurdzhiyev told the Radio Svoboda Crimean Service that Leonid Kuzmin and Maksym Kuzmin (who are unrelated) had been detained for supposedly infringing the rules for holding a public event, although there was no such ‘event’.  Both men independently walked up to the monument to the poet Taras Shevchenko and laid flowers.  According to Shukurdzhiyev, they were detained as they did so  (More details as they become available). 

As has become standard under Russian occupation, the authorities in Crimea have banned any event to mark Ukraine’s Independence Day and have also issued ‘warnings’ of prosecution for ‘extremism’ or infringements of Russia’s repressive law on peaceful assembly.

18 months ago Moscow claimed that its invasion and occupation of Crimea was aimed at protecting the rights of ethnic Russians which were supposedly being infringed.  In Aug 2015, the Russian-ruled prosecutor has warned as follows:

“Some radical Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian activists are planning to provoke the Crimean law enforcement bodies to use force by placing Ukrainian symbols in inhabited areas of Crimea and chanting pro-Ukrainian slogans”. 

What kind of ‘force’ the sight of a Ukrainian flag will ‘provoke’ is not specified.  The blue and yellow bouquet of flowers laid at the monument to Taras Shevchenko on Ukrainian Flag Day (Aug 23) was ripped apart within hours. 

From the moment Russian forces seized control in Crimea on Feb 27, 2014 and installed a puppet government, it became increasingly dangerous to publicly display the Ukrainian flag and other Ukrainian symbols.  The danger came from armed paramilitaries, with activists beaten, abducted, held hostage and, in some cases, murdered

Now it is the law enforcement bodies who will be ‘provoked’.  Nor would it be the first occasion that the occupation regime is infringing fundamental rights and treating Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar flags and symbols as ‘extremist’ and as ‘prohibited symbols’. 

On Aug 11 officers from Russia’s ‘Centre for Countering Extremism’ in five police cars swooped on Veldar Shukurdzhiyev, an activist from the Ukrainian Cultural Centre and Iryna Kopylova, as they took photographs of themselves holding a Ukrainian flag near the monument to Lenin. 

That was not the first time that Shukurdzhiyev had ‘provoked’ such zeal from the police.  On March 9, he, Leonid Kuzmin and Oleksandr Kravchenko were detained after a totally peaceful gathering to mark the 201st anniversary of the birth of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko.  They were all sentenced to 40 hours community work for displaying what the police called and the court agreed were ‘prohibited symbols’, namely the Ukrainian flag and ribbons in the colours of the flag.

Crimean Tatar national movement activist Kurtseit Abdullayev was also sentenced a few weeks later over the same gathering.  He was carrying a Ukrainian flag with the words “Crimea is Ukraine”.

All of them were summoned and interrogated by the Centre for Countering Extremism, and this new warning also twice cites the law on extremism.  The notoriously broad understanding of ‘extremism’ in Russian legislation can be seen even in the sinister fact that the law is cited here at all.  The original application which was turned down was only for a joint flower-laying ceremony at the monument to Taras Shevchenko.  The warning cites ‘extremism’ as including incitement to racial, ethnic or religious enmity, the circulation of symbols of ‘extremist’ organizations, or of ‘extremist material’.  At very least one Tatar, Rafis Kashalov is currently in detention and facing a 5-year sentence, charged with ‘public calls to violate Russian territorial integrity’ and ‘hate speech’ for posts in VKontakte critical of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggression in eastern Ukraine.

The warning is overt intimidation and, despite its absurdity, to be taken seriously.  Spare a thought on Independence Day for those Ukrainians in Crimea for whom bringing flowers to Taras Shevchenko or waving a Ukrainian flag is once again, like in Soviet times, an act of courage. 

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