On Trial in Occupied Crimea for Upholding Russian territorial borders
The trial begins on May 31 of Crimean Tatar leader Ilmi Umerov who could face a 5-year prison sentence for saying that Russia must leave Crimea and Donbas. This is the second such trial in Russian-occupied Crimea where Ukrainian journalist Mykola Semena is facing essentially identical charges for expressing such an opinion in an article.
The ‘trials’ are of necessity surreal, since Umerov and Semena are facing mandatory 5-year terms of imprisonment for expressing the position on territorial borders which the Russian Federation agreed to uphold in multiple international agreements that it has not withdrawn from. Umerov and Semena expressed the same position as that upheld by the UN, EU, OSCE, all democratic countries and the International Criminal Court. Both men, together with Crimean Tatar activist and former police officer Suleiman Kadyrov, have remained loyal to their country – Ukraine. Umerov is to be tried by a judge who betrayed the oath he made to serve Ukraine, while the prosecution ‘witnesses’ in Semena’s case are similarly people who switched allegiance.
Russia has not sought the prosecution of western leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, yet is prosecuting Umerov, Semena and Kadyrov for identical statements. The three Ukrainians are all accused under Article 280.1 of the Russian criminal code with ‘public calls to action aimed at violating Russia’s territorial integrity’.
The hearings thus far against Mykola Semena leave no scope for illusions about the Umerov trial. Every effort has been taken to keep people out of the court hearings, and the so-called ’witnesses’ for the prosecution have mostly been people clearly accustomed to providing witness services for Russia’s FSB and having nothing to contribute to the proceedings. At the hearing on May 10, one ‘witness’ was brought by force to the court who had once known Semena. Sergei Meshkovoy has clearly always adapted his journalist activities to suit the political climate. In 2011 he switched his political allegiance to the ruling party of President Viktor Yanukovych, and in 2014 welcomed Russia’s invasion and annexation. He is now the chief editor of the Kremlin-backed Luhansk militants’ ‘information centre’.
His ‘testimony’, like so much else in these prosecutions, is disturbingly reminiscent of the old Soviet tries for ‘anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda’. Although Semena notes that there are factual mistakes in the earlier testimony, his main input at the hearing appeared to be his assertion that all Semena’s material was “biased, pro-Ukrainian and anti-Russian”.
The indictment, Semena notes, contains testimony from many other journalists in Crimea. None had a bad word to say about the journalist, except Meshkovoy.
It is unfortunately no surprise that the prosecution should be focusing on words about Semena being anti-Russian. The journalist is literally on trial for one article entitled “The Blockade – a necessary first step to the liberation of Crimea”. The indictment claims that the author was “motivated by political animosity to the Russian Federation and the fact of the Crimean Republic having become a new subject of the RF, and aware of the criminal nature of his actions”. The indictment reveals a level of surveillance similar to that used by the FSB’s Soviet predecessors. It treats the fact that the article was written under a pseudonym as criminal, although it was solely linked to the lack of any freedom of press in occupied Crimea. Much of the ’evidence’, as well as the ’witness testimony’, seems aimed at imitating a court trial. At the hearing on May 22, for example, the prosecution read out Semena’s personal correspondence, presumably intercepted, as well as printouts of material that have nothing to do with his journalist activities, nor with the charges against him. Since Semena's Russian lawyer objected and demanded a translation of the letters which were in Ukrainian, the hearing has now been adjourned until June 5.
The (closed) preliminary hearing in Ilmi Umerov’s case is due on May 31. The Deputy Head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis was initially detained on May 12, 2016 and charged over an interview given to the Crimean Tatar ATR TV on March 19 in Kyiv. In that interview he stated that Russia must be made to leave Crimea and Donbas, and that sanctions should be increased. Russia is in all seriousness claiming that the interview contained “public calls to action aimed at violating Russia’s territorial integrity’.
It is possible that the charges will also include an interview given to TV 112.ua in December 2015.
It could, in fact, include any number of interviews since Umerov, like Semena and Suleiman Kadyrov, do not conceal their position.
The article of the criminal code which now carries an obligatory 5-year sentence was introduced in May 2014. There were fears from the outset that it would be used against those who correctly stated that Crimea is Ukrainian territory.
The legislative move was almost certainly aimed at silencing opposition to Russia’s invasion. Together with repressive and / or thuggish reprisals against independent journalists and activists, it probably prompted some Crimean Tatars and other Crimean Ukrainians to move to mainland Ukraine.
Semena, Umerov, Kadyrov and many others remained. Ilmi Umerov said recently that he had decided immediately after Russia’s invasion that he would never leave his homeland under any circumstances, even if that entails imprisonment.
Ilmi Umerov is 59 years old, and has some very serious illnesses. These prevented Russia from remanding him in custody, so they resorted in August – September 2016 to punitive psychiatry. Umerov was forcibly incarcerated in a psychiatric clinic where the conditions were also dangerous for his health for a supposed psychiatric ‘assessment’.
Mykola Semena recently turned 67, and also has health issues. The FSB refused to allow him to get vitally needed medical treatment for a spine issue which could leave him permanently disabled.
Suleiman Kadyrov is only 54, but retired from the police force after Russia’s invasion, as he had given his oath to Ukraine, and would not work for Russia.
Despite the lack of any conviction, all three men have already been placed on Russia’s ‘List of Terrorists and Extremists’.