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Seized by Crimean anti-extremism squad for a Ukrainian flag

Halya Coynash

   Photo from Veldar Shukurdzhiyev’s Facebook page

Five police cars were deployed in Russian-occupied Crimea in an ‘operation’ on Aug 11 against two Ukrainians and a Ukrainian flag.  Officers from Russia’s ‘Centre for Countering Extremism’ swooped on Veldar Shukurdzhiyev, an activist from the Ukrainian Cultural Centre and Iryna Kopylova, as they took photographs of themselves holding a Ukrainian flag near the monument to Lenin.  The webpage Public Defence reports that Shukurdzhiyev and Kopylova were seized together with a lawyer from Moscow, Iryna Biryukova, although she had nothing to do with the photographs.

Administrative offence protocols were issued with the claim being that the two Ukrainians had been holding an unauthorized public event.  This carries a fine of 10 -20 thousand roubles or community work for up to 40 hours.  

Biryukova reported that FSB officers arrived at the police station and tried to convince her that a Ukrainian flag on Lenin Square was illegal.  They refused to allow her to represent the two Ukrainians, however friends managed to find them a lawyer, and eventually all three were released.  A court hearing over the charges is doubtless looming.

Shukurdzhiyev commented only that none of this is anything new.   He writes: “Searches, interrogations, fines, court hearings and arrests. I’m beginning to get used to the surveillance when I leave my home to take photos. At least it’s not a firing squad!.”  He promises more details later and asks what is clearly a rhetorical question about the likelihood of Russian human rights activists holding a press conference in Moscow on violations of human rights in Crimea by the Russian punitive bodies. 

This is not the first time that Ukrainian flags and even embroidered shirts have resulted in repressive measures against Ukrainians in Russian-occupied Crimea. 

In trying to justify its invasion and annexation of Crimea, Moscow constantly claimed that Russians were being persecuted and in danger in Crimea.  No proof was ever provided.

Since annexation, ethnic Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars and others, including ethnic Russians, who oppose Russian rule, have faced attacks, arrests, dismissal, harassment and some have simply disappeared.  All of this is provable, and even the current attempts by Russia to criminalize the work of the Crimean Human Rights Field Mission cannot hide the ongoing repression and serious rights abuse.

On March 9, 2015, Kuzmin organized and Shukurdzhiyev and Oleksandr Kravchenko took part in a totally peaceful gathering marking the 201st anniversary of the birth of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko.  The event can be viewed here:      

All three men were detained, interrogated over likely ‘extremism’ and then sentenced to 40 hours of community service, with Kuzmin also threatened with dismissal from his teaching job.

The gathering is an annual event and dates back to Soviet times when bringing flowers and reading the poems of Shevchenko was a civic act for which people could lose their jobs or face court sentences.  Under Russian occupation those times have returned.

At least two Ukrainian flags, one with the words: “Crimea is Ukraine” were held, as well as a Crimean Tatar flag.  Many of the young people present also held balloons in the colours of the Ukrainian flag, and one of the three men detained attached ribbons in the colour of the flag to the Gagarin monument.

The three men were charged with “infringement of the established procedure for organizing or holding a gathering, rally, etc.”.  It was clear, however, from the court hearing that their ‘offence’ lay for the police – and most worryingly, the court – in the Ukrainian flag which a police officer actually called a “prohibited symbol”. (See:  Crimean Court Finds Ukrainian Flag a “Prohibited Symbol”)

All three men were also questioned in the so-called ‘Centre for Combating Extremism’. 

Crimean Tatar national movement activist Kurtseit Abdullayev was also sentenced a few weeks later over the same gathering.  He was carrying a Ukrainian flag with the words “Crimea is Ukraine”.

Ukrainian embroidery has provoked a similarly inadequate reaction (see:

Embroidery Day in Crimea: Detention, Interrogation & Ghoulish Threats

However grotesque this may all seem, there is nothing at all comical about a situation where people face arrests, criminal charges and some detention for peacefully opposing Russia’s invasion and occupation of their home. 

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