Chillingly Soviet: Imprisonment without a Crime in Crimea
26 Feb 2014
Crimeans, mostly Crimean Tatars, under Russian occupation are effectively being imprisoned without any elements of a crime, in most cases without any sign of a trial, with the lack of international reaction making them as defenceless as the many Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian activists who have disappeared without trace since Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
A Crimean Tatar leader, Akhtem Chiygoz, and cameraman from a recently silenced Crimean Tatar TV channel, Eskander Nebiyev, are now both to be held in custody until at least late June despite the lack of any grounds for holding them in custody, or indeed for criminal prosecution at all. Another Crimean Tatar – Mustafa Degirmindzhy - was arrested on Sunday.
It is not that the international community has failed to notice. All international structures and NGOs have reported grave violations of human rights in Crimea since Russia’s invasion. The violations are by now legion, making the reports very long and the sense of powerlessness intense. While the arrests on preposterous charges of Crimean film director Oleg Sentsov and civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko have, like that of Nadiya Savchenko, received international attention, there is an ever-increasing number of prisoners whose ongoing detention remains largely unnoticed.
The measures taken by Natalya Poklonskaya, the Crimean prosecutor installed after Russia’s invasion and the Russian Investigative Committee have become noticeably more aggressive. A year ago, the occupation regime used heavy-handed measures to prevent the peaceful attempt on May 3 to accompany veteran Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemiliev into Crimea after Russia banned him from his homeland, but initially confined itself to only administrative penalties (mainly hefty fines). The first dubious criminal charges appeared 6 months later, and have resulted in Crimean Tatars being remanded in custody, as well as numerous armed searches and interrogations. One person so far is now facing trial.
Since then all pretence of adherence to fundamental principles of law has been abandoned. Two criminal prosecutions are currently underway over alleged – and unprovable – events that took place before Russia occupied Crimea, and in one case, in Kyiv, not Crimea.
The criminal case against Oleksandr Kostenko over alleged injury to a Berkut riot police officer in Kyiv on Feb 18, 2014 was initiated almost a year later, on Feb 6, the day after Kostenko was taken into custody. The suspicion that a Maidan activist was first caught, and then charges concocted, is only exacerbated by the proceedings since and the fact that Kostenko remained in custody despite the alleged offences, even according to Russian legislation, not warranting detention. A court in Simferopol on May 15 sentenced him to 4 years and 2 months (more details here)
There are a number of reasons why the lack of international attention to the so-called ‘Feb 26 case’ is so disturbing. These prosecutions are clearly targeting Crimean Tatars, with the main aim being Akhtem Chiygoz, Deputy Head of the Mejlis, or Crimean Tatar representative assembly. They come in the wake of a mounted offensive against the Mejlis, which began with the bans on Mustafa Dzhemiliev and the Head of the Mejlis, Refat Chubarov and escalated in September 2014. Chiygoz was first arrested on Jan 29, 2015, and his detention has just been extended for a further 2 months, until June 30. This was despite an application from Andrei Yurov, member of the Crimean Human Rights Monitoring Mission and of the Russian President’s own Human Rights Council. Chiygoz has at least been returned to a normal cell after being forced to declare hunger strike last week in protest at being placed in a solitary confinement punishment cell.
Chiygoz, and at very least six other Crimean Tatars are charged in connection with a demonstration which took place on Feb 26, 2014, i.e. the day before Russian soldiers seized control, and over which Russian-occupied Crimea can have no jurisdiction. There were around 10 thousand Crimean Tatars and Maidan supporters who gathered outside the parliament building in Simferopol that day because they feared plans were underway to push through a bill changing Crimea’s status. They were opposed by a smaller number of pro-Russian demonstrators led by Sergei Aksyonov, then the leader of a marginal pro-Russian party in the Crimean parliament. Aksyonov was installed as self-proclaimed leader on Feb 27 after Russian soldiers seized control.
Radio Svoboda reported at the time of Chiygoz’s arrest that their video footage clearly showed all representatives of the Mejlis seeking only to calm the crowd and prevent bloodshed. This was also confirmed by a Russian journalist Pavel Kanygin, writing for Novaya Gazeta, and present during the demonstration on Feb 26, 2014 He reports that Refat Chubarov used a megaphone to call for calm after the first scuffles broke out. Later, after the parliamentary session believed to be planning to take control was cancelled, Chubarov and Aksyonov came out together and called for calm and for the demonstrators to disperse. Kanygin adds that the Crimean Tatars heeded this call, not the pro-Russian demonstrators who remained and kept chanting “Russia!”
Ten months after this demonstration, the occupation authorities began ‘investigating’ the event, and have now made 7 arrests, with five (or probably six, counting Mustafa Degirmindzhy ) people in custody. They are also carrying out armed searches and interrogating members of the Mejlis and others. Novaya Gazeta reports that the investigators were so short of any material, that they invited Simferopol residents who had been subjected to force “even in the absence of bodily injuries” to come forward.
With such methods of ‘investigation’, the scope for abuse is enormous. It is probably no accident that another person arrested is a photographer for the Crimean Tatar television channel which Aksyonov named an ‘enemy element’ in Crimea and which has now been forced off air. Eskender Nebiyev was at the demonstration in his professional capacity as ATR photographer. His appeal against detention was rejected on May 8, and he is currently remanded in custody until June 20. His lawyer Dzhemil Temishev notes that judges in today’s Crimea do not pass ruling which go against the Investigative Committee. Most ominously, Temishev is in no doubt that the reason for keeping Nebiyev – and the others – in detention is in order to use physical force and psychological pressure and extract the testimony they want.
It seems very likely that all of this is aimed at coming up with a show trial against the Mejlis, and at warning Crimean Tatars what they should expect if they don’t keep their heads low.
Western countries have not by any means exhausted their ability to put pressure on Russia over Crimea, nor, in fact, has Ukraine which Crimea remains dependent on for electricity, food supplies and much more. Attention from the international community to specific victims of repression can help bring pressure to bear for such levers to be applied, and could also deter the occupation regime from further arrests.