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10.09.2018 | Halya Coynash

Journalist sentenced for criticising Russia’s occupation of Crimea urgently needs medical treatment

Mykola Semena Photo Valery Balayan
   

A year after Ukrainian journalist Mykola Semena received a two and a half year suspended sentence for an article opposing Russia’s occupation of Crimea, the 68-year-old is unable to receive acutely needed medical treatment for heart and spinal issues in Kyiv without special permission. 

Earlier attempts to get such permission have been turned down, and there is concern that the grave repercussions for Semena’s health will again be ignored. . Ukraine’s Human Rights Ombudsman Ludmila Denisova and the National Union of Journalists have both asked the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir to intercede on Semena’s behalf, with Denisova also calling on her Russian counterpart Tatyana Moskalkova to help enable Semena to leave for mainland Ukraine.  The renowned journalist cannot receive the level of treatment he requires in Crimea, and has a formal invitation inviting him to receive hospital care at the Romadanov Institute of Neurosurgery in Kyiv.  Semena’s difficulties in Crimea are further exacerbated by the fact that he has been banned from working as a journalist.  Long before the sentence, he was also placed on Russia’s notorious ’List of Terrorists and Extremists.’. This placed added restrictions on even his use of a bank.

Semena is one of three Ukrainians living in Crimea ( to have been charged and convicted under an article of Russia’s criminal code introduced shortly after its invasion and annexation of Crimea. Article 280.1 punishes for something termed ‘public calls to action aimed at violating Russia’s territorial integrity’.  Russia has, as feared, used this norm as a weapon against those criticizing its Crimean land-grab, and Semena, Crimean Tatar Mejlis leader Ilmi Umerov and Crimean Tatar activist Suleyman Kadyrov were all prosecuted for expressing the same view on Russia’s occupation of Crimea as that held by the UN General Assembly, all international structures and democratic states.

Russia’s attempt to call opposition to its occupation of Crimea a ‘violation of Russia’s territorial integrity’ is especially absurd given that Russia has accepted that Crimea is Ukrainian territory in numerous international agreements from which it has not withdrawn.

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 22 September 2017 by Nadezhda Igorevna Shkolnaya from the Zheleznodorozhny Court. 

In his final address to the ‘court’ just before the September ruling, 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.

Semena’s prosecution and conviction were internationally condemned.  The distinguished journalist and writer was recipient of the Pavel Sheremet Journalism Award for 2016 and was one of three laureates (together with Ukrainian political prisoners Oleg Sentsov and Roman Sushchenko) of Andrei Sakharov Award for Courage in January 2018.   

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