Poignant Day of Crimean Resistance
Ukraine’s government has formally established February 26 as the Day of Crimean Resistance to Russian Aggression. The choice of date is linked with one of the most cynical cases of repression specifically targeting Crimean Tatars that the West has failed to adequately address. The decision was made even more poignantly appropriate by coming on political prisoner Ali Asanov’s 31st birthday, his second in detention.
On February 26, 2014, around 10 thousand Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians heeded the call from the Crimean Tatar Mejlis [representative assembly] and gathered in front of the Crimean parliament. According to Refat Chubarov, Head of the Mejlis, it was their presence that prevented certain pro-Russian members of the Crimean parliament from pushing through an illegal decision to change Crimea’s status. Chubarov believes that they thus disrupted a plan aimed at achieving informal annexation while creating the illusion of legality for the international community”.
There was also a pro-Russian counter-demonstration led by Sergei Aksyonov, the leader of a marginal party who was installed by Russian soldiers as de facto leader the following day.
All video footage available shows the leaders of the Mejlis working tirelessly to ensure that the demonstration on Feb 26 remained peaceful. There were two deaths that day, but one person died of a heart attack, while the other was crushed in the section of the square where there were only pro-Russian protesters.
The attempt to hold an extraordinary session had been thwarted. At around 4 a.m. the following morning, Feb 27, heavily armed Russian soldiers without insignia seized control of parliament.
Russian President Vladimir Putin soon quit denying that the soldiers were Russian, but does still try to claim that Russia’s annexation was somehow the will of the people, even orchestrating a pseudo-referendum.
10 months later the occupation regime began a so-called ‘criminal investigation’ into supposed ‘mass disturbances’ on that day. Since by then veteran Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemiliev and Chubarov had been banned from their homeland, the Deputy Head of the Mejlis Akhtem Chiygoz was arrested and has been in custody ever since.
There were a large number of armed searches and arrests with these all targeting Crimean Tatars, and two Crimean Tatars – Mustafa Degermendzhy and Ali Asanov – have also been in detention for well over a year.
The charges are totally surreal in their lawlessness. The men are charged under Russian law over a demonstration which took place in Ukrainian Crimea before Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and therefore unequivocally under Ukrainian law. Such prosecution is even prohibited by Russia’s own Criminal Code (Article 12 § 3).
Yet Chiygoz is charged with ‘organizing mass protests’ under Russian legislation, and Asanov and Degermendzhy of taking part in them. There is no evidence against Asanov at all, yet he has been in detention since April 2015, despite having four small children and an invalid father to care for. In Degermendzhy’s case, there is video footage showing him leaving the crowd with his father who has asthma and was in great physical distress.
At present Chiygoz is facing a sentence of at least 10 years, and Asanov and Degermendzhy of up to 8 years. This, however, could change since Russia may try to use the court ruling declaring the Mejlis ‘extremist’ to add ‘extremism’ charges. It is also possible that the draconian bill supposedly against terrorism just passed in Russia would also be used to increase sentences.
All of this is breathtakingly lawless, but so is the entire ‘case’. There are strong grounds for suspecting that Asanov and Degermendzhy are in prison solely for their integrity for refusing to give false testimony against Chiygoz. One of Chiygoz’s lawyers Nikolai Polozov says that the prosecution is planning a number of ‘secret witnesses’. Any such testimony will fly in the face of video footage, but none of this has deterred courts in Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea from passing the politically-motivated verdicts demanded of them.
It is cheering that the Resolution just passed by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly calls for the unconditional release of Chiygoz, as well as other Ukrainian nationals detained or imprisoned on fabricated charges.
This is frustratingly little, however, given the extraordinary cynicism of this case. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recent monitoring mission report, for example, could only manage to recommend that the de facto authorities and Russia “ensure due process and fair trial rights for Crimean Tatars detained in relation to the February 2014 demonstration”.
How can you ensure a fair trial where the very charges are against fundamental principles of jurisdiction and legality?
The Council of Europe’s Secretary General was silent about this case, as indeed about any human rights issues in Crimea and Donbas in his 2015 report. The reason given was that the information was based solely on the Council of Europe’s own monitoring missions. No information, no violations. The excuse was as pitiful as the report by Ambassador Gérard Stoudmann following a Council of Europe monitoring mission visit in January 2016. Stoudmann mentioned only that they had visited Chiygoz at his request, and that Chiygoz “questioned the lawfulness of his arrest”.
It should be noted that the Russian Memorial Human Rights Centre has had no difficulty in determining the nature of this ‘case’ and has declared all three men to be political prisoners.
The list of abuses which European bodies have failed to react to is very long. It will continue to grow while their leaders try not to ‘annoy’ Russia too much and ignore such gross travesties of justice.