Russia brings Soviet-style repression to occupied Crimea
Ukrainian filmmaker and Kremlin hostage, Oleg Sentsov is to be formally awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in Strasbourg on 12 December, with Sentsov’s cousin and lawyer forced to accept the prize on his behalf. The ceremony will take place as the number of Russia’s Ukrainian prisoners of war and political prisoners has almost reached 100, and that is without counting well over 100 POWs and civilian hostages in occupied Donbas whose release is directly dependent on Moscow.
Awards which the recipients cannot receive in person are one of numerous echoes from the Soviet past since Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. The occupation regime began arresting people on politically motivated charges or for their faith within months of annexation. Just as in Soviet times, the apparently ‘non-political’ nature of the charges is dependent entirely on ‘judges’ who ask no questions, the absence of independent media and repressive measures against those who dare to speak out. The detention of Crimean Tatar rights lawyer Emil Kurbedinov on 6 December was just one of several attempts over the past year and more to silence, intimidate and / or imprison lawyers, Crimea Solidarity civic journalists and activists, or simply Crimeans who express their views on social media.
This civic initiative arose after the second wave of arrests of Crimean Muslims in February 2016, with lawyers, families of political prisoners, journalists and others uniting to help political prisoners and their families, and to ensure that the ongoing armed searches, arrests, abductions, etc. are known about both in Crimea and beyond.
Russia has reacted inadequately, and with repression, to all demonstrations of solidarity, such as the over 100 single-person pickets in defence of political prisoners on 14 October 2017. Although each of those pickets complied even with Russia’s repressive legislation on peaceful assembly, virtually all the participants were prosecuted and fined.
There have been two raids, on one occasion with the use of armed men with dogs, on gatherings of Crimean Solidarity. Sever Mustafaev, one of the coordinators of Crimean Solidarity and as many as seven activists are now imprisoned on deeply flawed charges of (unproven) ‘involvement’ in the peaceful Hizb ut-Tahrir movement.
Civic journalist Nariman Memedeminov, who played an invaluable role in reporting on political trials, has been imprisoned since March 2014, charged over innocuous videos posted on YouTube back in 2013 and 2014.
Three lawyers, involved in Crimean Solidarity (Kurbedinov; Edem Semedlyaev and Lilia Hemedzhy) have received formal ‘warnings’ on unsubstantiated accusations of planning to infringe Russia’s ‘extremism’ legislation, as has Dilyar Memetov, a Crimean Solidarity activist and himself the son of political prisoner Remzi Memetov.
Another CS activist and the daughter of a political prisoner, Gulsum Alieva is facing criminal prosecution for reposting a picture with a caption on Facebook and has been added to Russia’s highly specific ‘List of Terrorists and Extremists’.
This list includes other Ukrainians facing prosecution for reposting, writing or otherwise expressing criticism of Russia’s annexation.
Virtually all the main activists from the Ukrainian Cultural Centre have been driven out of Crimea or face imprisonment.
The awarding of the EU’s Sakharov Prize to Sentsov sent an important message to Russia that its attempts to present Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko and the two other opponents of Russia’s annexation arrested in May 2014 as ‘terrorists’ have failed.
On the whole, the efforts since 25 November to treat the 24 Ukrainian naval men seized after Russia’s attack as ordinary prisoners facing charges of ‘illegally crossing Russia’s border’ have also been a waste of time. The men did not cross Russia’s border, before being illegally taken to Moscow, and they are unequivocally prisoners of war. This makes Russia’s use of criminal prosecution yet another grave violation of the Geneva Convention.
In the later years of the Soviet regime, the KGB moved away from overtly political trials and began fabricating criminal proceedings, and Russia is doing the same.
The charges against Volodymyr Balukh were quite possibly intended to be implausible. What could be better as a chilling warning to other Ukrainians of what to expect if they don’t keep their heads low?
The same is probably true of hunger strikes which do not work in confrontation with a regime that does not respect human life. Sentsov was finally confronted with the prospect of forced-feeding, despite this being a form of torture, and forced to abandon his hunger strike. In Balukh’s case, the regime was even more brutal, refusing even to admit that he was on hunger strike.
Lawlessness worse than in Soviet times
Mustafa Dzhemilev, the veteran Crimean Tatar leader and Ukrainian MP, who spent 15 years in Soviet labour camps, has in fact spoken of a level of lawlessness under Russian occupation which goes beyond that of the Soviet totalitarian regime.
The abduction and torture of Crimean Tatar activist Rinat Paralamov made the methods used by the FSB [security service] to obtain ‘confessions’ and ‘secret witnesses’ terrifyingly clear.
The FSB miscalculated badly in Paralamov’s case, however it is not everybody who finds the courage to withstand torture, and the multiple ‘confessions’ forced out of people are likely to be used to arrest others.
In this, and in the kinds of ‘confessions’ that the FSB extract, the methods are depressingly close to those of the worst years under Joseph Stalin.
Russia’s FSB have developed methods that require little effort and imagination.
Torture and / or threats and other psychological pressure were even used against three of the 24 POWs seized in the Azov Sea, with the resulting ‘confessions’ widely reported on Russian state-controlled media.
The men’s videoed statements were so clearly forced out of them that the FSB may well decide not to try this on any further.
‘Ukrainian sabotage plots’
Videoed ‘confessions’ have been the mainstay of several fabricated cases since 2016 where Ukrainians have been seized, forced into ‘confessing’ to planning acts of sabotage for the Ukrainian SBU [Security Service] of Defence Ministry and then ‘tried’ in secret.
At present, the ‘trial’ is underway of two men – retired naval captain Volodymyr Dudka and academic Oleksiy Bessarabov. They refused to ‘confess’ and are now probably facing longer sentences in reprisal for holding out. In this case, the FSB labelled another academic, Dmytro Shtyblikov the ‘mastermind’ of a so-called saboteur plot, and held him effectively incommunicado, without a lawyer of his choice and under intense pressure, until he agreed to admit guilt. His testimony is now being used against the other two men, though there remains not a scrap of evidence to back the charges.
Death and torture of elderly political prisoners
Russia’s most brutally cynical prosecutions have involved elderly Crimean Tatars in ill health. In August 2017, 76-year-old Server Karametov was imprisoned for 10 days on a charge of ‘resisting a police officer’.
Then on 23 November, 2017, a major FSB ‘operation’ led to the attempted arrest and death, almost certainly from disproportionate use of force of 83-year-old Vedzhie Kashka, a much revered veteran of the Crimean Tatar national movement, and the arrest of four respected Crimean Tatars in their fifties and sixties. Two of the men have medical conditions that should have precluded imprisonment yet Bekir Degermendzhy remains in detention to this day and Asan Chapukh was only released under house arrest when it became clear that his life was in immediate danger.
Russia’s aims in 2017 become clear when you watch Russian propaganda channels. They claimed that the FSB and police had detained “members of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis”, adding all sorts of nonsense about how weapons were found during searches. This is Russia’s response to the International Court of Justice’s order that it remove its extraordinary ban on the Mejlis, or self-governing body of the main indigenous people of Crimea.
All faiths except the Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate have been under pressure since annexation but until recently it was only certain Muslims who had faced imprisonment. Unfortunately Russia has now begun coming for Jehovah’s Witnesses as well, with the first criminal charges (of ‘extremism’) laid against Serhiy Filatov.
‘Involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir’
28 men, most Crimean Tatar, are accused of ‘involvement’ in Hizb ut-Tahrir, which, as mentioned, is legal in Ukraine. Russia has not explained it designation of the organization as ‘terrorist’ and there is nothing to suggest that Hizb ut-Tahrir has been behind any acts of terrorism or violence anywhere in the world.
These Hizb ut-Tahrir cases are a conveyor belt of repression which enables FSB officers to claim ‘success in fighting ‘terrorism’ and gain promotion. Since the first arrests in 2015, Russia has increasingly used these charges against human rights or civic activists, including people who were playing a major role in Crimea Solidarity, the initiative helping political prisoners and their families. All those convicted merely of alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir are declared political prisoners by the Memorial Human Rights Centre.
April 18, 2016 Arsen Dzhepparov and Refat Alimov
May 10, 2018 Enver Seytosmanov
Four men were arrested on 2 October 2017 and changed with ‘involvement’ in the apolitical and peaceful Tablighi Jamaat movement which Russia banned as ‘extremist’ in 2009. Three men were remanded in custody: Talyat Abdurakhmanov; Renat Suleymanov; Arsen Kubedinov; while Seiran Mustafaev was placed under house arrest.
Ukrainians held illegally in Russia or occupied Crimea or whose imprisonment ended in 2018