Russia moves from armed invasion of Crimea to 5-year sentences for Ukrainians who object
Exactly three years after Russian soldiers with machine guns, but no insignia seized control in Crimea, a Ukrainian journalist has gone on trial, accused of ‘public calls to violate Russian territorial integrity’ for an article in which he called this occupation and expressed the wish that it would end. Given the cynicism of the charges and the fact that 67-year-old Mykola Semena has already been added to Russia’s so-called List of Extremists and Terrorists, the defence has no expectation of an acquittal and believes the question is whether the mandatory 5-year prison sentence will be applied.
The preliminary hearing on Feb 28 at the Zhelezhnodorozhny District Court brought no surprises. Defence lawyer Andrei Sabinin reports that the prosecutor appeared to have confused the beginning and end of the trial and asserted that the renowned journalist’s ‘guilt has been proven’. Sabinin applied for the case to be returned to the prosecutor for glaring mistakes to be rectified. One such irregularity was that the so-called linguistic assessment of the text on which the charges are based contains legal opinions. The application was rejected, and the first hearing ‘on the merits’, so to speak, of the case has been scheduled for March 20.
Semena is charged over an article entitled “The Blockade – a necessary first step to the liberation of Crimea”. The text was written in September 2015, in response to another opinion post which expressed concern over the hardships this peaceful civic blockade, initiated with detailed human rights demands, could cause.
The author of the article points out that Crimea had been under Nazi occupation for 2.5 years and must not be under Russian for any longer. He uses ‘military’ language about the Blockade, but very clearly as a metaphor for the degree of determination and organization involved.
“The Blockade must be full, systematic and designed so that it is followed by liberation.”
“Yes, Ukraine will never bring war to Crimea, that’s true. Because it [war] was brought there by Russia. The fact that in Crimea there is no military action now, is to the credit of Ukraine, not of Russia. Ukraine handed Crimea over when it was not in a position to defend it, but that doesn’t mean for ever.”
Semena has stated clearly that he was simply exercising his right to freedom of speech and expressing his views on a subject which is in dispute.
After long denying that it was Russian troops who had seized control in Crimea, Russia is now just as absurdly denying that it is occupying Ukrainian territory. Despite international condemnation and recognition by the International Criminal Court that Russia’s occupation constitutes an international military conflict, Moscow continues to claim that this is unquestionably Russian.
It is no accident that Article 280.1 of the Criminal Code, introduced soon after the invasion and annexation, has been most applied against Ukrainians in Crimea or Russian citizens for criticism of Russia’s aggression. Semena, Crimean Tatar Mejlis leader Ilmi Umerov and Suleyman Kadyrov are all facing criminal charges for so-called public calls to action aimed at violating Russia’s territorial integrity. In each case, the ‘offending’ words are about Crimea being Ukrainian and Russia’s occupation needing to end.
In Russia, Tatar leader Rafis Kashapov and several other activists have already been imprisoned under this same article for criticizing annexation and Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
The indictment claims that Semena made calls to violate Russian territorial integrity “out of political animosity towards the Russian Federation.” It quotes several places in the text and describes how Semena sent the article to Radio Svoboda’s Crimean Service Krym.realii by email.
The surveillance Semena was under seems quite Soviet. There was no question in occupied Crimea of writing openly and the text was published under a pseudonym and Semena deleted both the text and the email used to send it. A criminal investigation was launched on April 13, 2016, with the decision stating the exact time that the article had been sent, meaning that somebody had been following his actions even on the computer.
There is also reported to be one prosecution ‘witness’ – a Crimean journalist Sergei Meshkovoi who is currently working for the Kremlin-backed militants of the so-called ‘Luhansk people’s republic’. His ‘testimony’ appears to consist of the assertion that “material written by Semena was always insufficiently objective in describing the socio-political situation in Crimea, and Semena held clear pro-Ukrainian and anti-Russian views”.
The FSB carried out searches of the homes of Semena and six other journalists on April 19, 2016, and soon afterwards brought the above-mentioned charges against Semena.
The prosecution has been internationally condemned and recognized as an offensive against freedom of speech and independent journalism. Both Ukrainian and international rights groups have called for maximum attention and a “strong and clear reaction” from the international community.
A Civic Solidarity Platform statement stresses that “the desire of the Russian authorities to silence critically-minded journalists is a part of their larger attempt to block truthful information about the situation on the peninsula: reprisals target not only journalists but also civic activists and all those who speak up against the illegal annexation of Crimea.”
Photos: Simferopol Airport - Radio Svoboda, Mykola Semena - Anton Naumlyuk