19.12.2017 | Halya Coynash

Russia confirms ban on independent journalists & freedom of speech in occupied Crimea

Mykola Semena Photo Krym.realii

The High Court in Russian-occupied Crimea has upheld the two and a half year suspended sentence passed on 67-year-old Ukrainian journalist Mykola Semena for expressing the position of the UN, EU, Council of Europe and international community regarding Russia’s occupation of Crimea.  ‘Judge’ Igor Kryuchkov did, however, reduce the probation period and length of the ban on Semena engaging in any public activity from three to two years. 

In commenting on the ruling, Semena himself wondered whether anywhere in the world you can find the ban on a person’s journalist profession which has been applied against him.  This, he suggests, is “fairly stupid primitiveness which says most about the level of the state, of its legislation and its justice system”.

Neither Semena himself, nor his lawyers Emil Kurbedinov and Alexander Popkov, had any great expectations for justice at the hearing on December 18, and the same is doubtless true of the appeal to Russia’s Supreme Court.  All such theoretical ‘legal remedies’ must be applied before the case goes before the European Court of Human Rights which is effectively certain to find in Semena’s favour.

Semena is one of three Ukrainians thus far to be charged under an article of Russia’s criminal code introduced shortly after its invasion and annexation of Crimea. Article 280.1 punishes something termed ‘public calls to action aimed at violating Russia’s territorial integrity’ which Russia has repeatedly used as a weapon against those criticizing its Crimean land-grab. 

In Semena’s case, the ‘calls’ were purportedly found in an article entitled The Blockade – a necessary first step to the liberation of Crimea”.  The text was written in September 2015, and posted on Krym.Realii as an opinion piece, a response to the concerns expressed in a first op-ed about hardships that the civic blockade, initiated with detailed human rights demands, could cause. 

 “The Blockade must be full, systematic and designed so that it is followed by liberation”, Semena wrote. “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 able defend it, but that doesn’t mean for ever.”

The FSB’s ‘linguistic expert’ Olga Nikolaevna Ivanova claimed that such ‘public calls’ were contained in the words “It [Russia] must return Crimea”.

Ivanova’s opus was based solely on four FSB method guidelines, which she clearly copy-pasted, together with the howling grammatical mistakes they displayed (details here).

The two and a half year suspended sentence against Semena was passed on September 22 by Nadezhda Igorevna Shkolnaya from the Zheleznodorozhny Court. 

Both she and Kryuchkov found it expedient to ignore the fact that Semena was actually defending the territorial borders which the Russian Federation has bound itself to uphold in multiple international agreements that it has not withdrawn from.

In his final address to the ‘court’ on September 18, Semena said that his conviction would not just be that of one Ukrainian journalist, but a  sentence against all journalism in Russia.  He expressed bemusement over the prosecution for a text where it was stated three times that this was an opinion piece.

He stressed that he had relied both on international law, and on Russian and Ukrainian legislation, and that his views on Crimea coincided with the opinion of all international organizations and the governments of the vast majority of countries.  

“Russia, which is today prosecuting me, is itself in a small minority and its position is not based on law.”

“The authorities are trying to achieve a situation where not one view differing from that of those in power is published.”

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 was widely seen as an attempt to drive independent journalists out of Crimea or intimidate them into silence.

It also highlighted the disturbing level of surveillance applied against Semena and presumably many others whom Russia suspects of independent thinking.  It became clear from the file material that the FSB had been following Semena online as he composed the article in question.

Having failed to intimidate Semena, a puppet ‘court’ banned him from carrying out his profession or indeed speaking out in public in any capacity, with this only slightly reduced in the second ‘court’s December 18 ruling.

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