war crimes in Ukraine

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Ukraine remembers Petro Grigorenko as his words in defence of Crimean Tatars could get you arrested in Russian-occupied Crimea

Halya Coynash
It is 110 years since the birth of Petro Grigorenko, Soviet General, founding member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, victim of punitive psychiatry and defender of the Crimean Tatar people. The anniversary is of acute poignancy at a time when Crimean Tatars are once again facing discrimination and persecution in their homeland under Russian occupation or in enforced exile.

Events are taking place this week to mark the 110th anniversary of the birth of Petro Grigorenko, Soviet General, founding member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, victim of punitive psychiatry and defender of the Crimean Tatar people.  The anniversary is of acute poignancy at a time when Crimean Tatars are once again facing discrimination and persecution in their homeland under Russian occupation or in enforced exile

Petro Griigorenko was born in the Zaporizhya region on 16 October 1907 and during the first years of the Soviet regime, became a convinced communist, a member of the Komsomol, and later of the Communist Party. He was a professional military man from 1931 and served as a Major General throughout World War II.  He could have enjoyed the honours and benefits that his war hero status gave him to the end of his days. 

Instead, in 1961, he spoke out and continued to do so, with the response from the Soviet machine swift and brutal.  Grigorenko was too well-known and a war hero, so instead of labour camp, he was twice incarcerated in so-called ‘special’ (in fact KGB-controlled) psychiatric hospitals.  He helped found the Moscow Helsinki Group and then, in November 1976, became one of the ten founding members of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, all of whom suffered persecution as a result.

In 1977, Grigorenko was given permission to seek urgently needed medical treatment in the USA and, while there, stripped of his Soviet citizenship.  From exile he continued to represent the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, and remained a voice for those persecuted in the Soviet Union until his death on Feb 21, 1987. 

Grigorenko was an unwavering champion of human rights generally, however he holds a very special place in the hearts of the Crimean Tatars for his defence of their rights, and in particular their right to return to their homeland. 

It is almost 50 years since a pivotal speech given by Grigorenko to Crimean Tatars in Moscow in 1968.  In 2017, almost four years after Russia invaded and annexed Crimea,  the words are poignantly relevant.  Reposting them in occupied Crimea could quite easily earn you at very least a fine, if not criminal charges for ’public calls to action aimed at violating Russia’s territorial integrity’ under a law which came into force just months after Russia’s invasion of Crimea.   

In his speech, Petro Grigorenko spoke of the injustice that had been perpetrated against the Crimean Tatars, and the fact that even the retraction of the slanderous lies used as Joseph Stalin’s justification for the Deportation was carried out quietly. It has been noticeable since annexation that those lies have again been pushed. 

Grigorenko referred to the Soviet Constitution, stressing that the law was nonetheless on the side of the Crimean Tatars.

“... you underestimate your enemy. You think that you are dealing with honest people. But this is not so! What has been done to your people was not done by Stalin alone. And his accomplices are not only alive—but they occupy responsible positions. You are appealing to the leadership of the party and the state with conciliatory written requests. But that which belongs to you by right should not be asked for but demanded. 

So begin to demand. And demand not just parts, pieces, but all that was taken from you unlawfully—demand the reestablishment of the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic

Don’t limit your actions to the writing of petitions. Fortify them with all of those means which the Constitution provides you—the freedom of speech and of the press, of meetings, assemblies, of street marches and demonstrations

And in your struggle do not shut yourselves in a narrow nationalist shell. Establish contacts with all the progressive people of other nationalities of the Soviet Union. Do not consider your cause to be solely an internal Soviet matter”.  (a full translation can be found here)

Russia’s Constitution also guarantees freedom of speech, of assembly, etc., yet in occupied Crimea all those rights are severely restricted. 

Russia is holding at least 59 Ukrainians, around 47 of them from Crimea, imprisoned in occupied Crimea or Russia on politically motivated charges or for their faith.  100 children are growing up without their fathers, and that number looks set to rise.

The banning of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, the self-governing body of the main indigenous people of Crimea has been universally condemned, yet Russia has even flouted the direct order from the UN’s International Court of Justice at the Hague to withdraw the ban and to stop other forms of discrimination of Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians in Crimea.

Instead of reinstating the Mejlis, it has sentenced the Deputy Chair of the Mejlis, Akhtem Chiygoz to 8 years’ imprisonment, having held him in custody since January 2015 on openly lawless charges.

Similar levels of lawlessness are typical of most of the politically motivated ‘trials’ in occupied Crimea.  Another Crimean Tatar leader Ilmi Umerov has been sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for saying that sanctions would help force Russia to leave Crimea.  The FSB used a falsified translation of the original Crimean Tatar interview to try to turn that into ‘public calls to action aimed at violating Russia’s territorial integrity’, although even the rigged version only expresses the same position taken by the UN and all democratic states.

Mustafa Dzhemilev, veteran leader of the Crimean Tatar national movement, who spent 15 years in Soviet labour camps, was just 6 months old when his entire people were deported from their homeland.  He was banned from Crimea again in April 2014 by the Russian invaders of his native Crimea. 

It was in large part thanks to both Petro Grigorenko and Mustafa Dzhemilev that the link between the human rights movement and Crimean Tatar national movement was always very strong.  Both movements were peaceful, stressing non-violence and resistance through reference to the laws that the Soviet Union had passed, but never intended to honour.

In a recent interview Nikolai Polozov, the lawyer representing Akhtem Chiygoz suggested that Russia was using such open forms of intimidation and repression as it would prefer violent resistance which it has plenty of experience of brutally crushing.  “Crimean Tatars are the symbol of resistance in Crimea, of the struggle for freedom.  At the same time, they do not enter into active contact with the Russian enforcement bodies and do not take up arms.  Of course, that is making the Kremlin very nervous.”

It would be so much simpler (for the Kremlin), he added, if they did use violence.  It is the peaceful, non-violent protest that has stumped the Kremlin, forcing it to seek measures to intimidate the Crimean Tatars, force them into submission.  They therefore targeted the highest-ranking Crimean Tatars left after Mustafa Dzhemilev and Mejlis leader Refat Chubarov were banned from their homeland.

Polozov believes that this policy has had the opposite effect. “Crimean Tatars are not intimidated by such terrorization, on the contrary - Akhtem Chiygoz’ courage inspires them to continue their struggle, to continue to hold true to their principles”.

Six Crimean Tatars, including some activists from Crimea Solidarity, a civic initiative uniting the lawyers and families of political prisoners, were arrested last week on fabricated charges which are likely to bring sentences of 10 years or more.

Three days later, around 100 Crimean Tatars came out on solitary pickets throughout Crimea. They held placards reading: “The Crimean Tatar people are not terrorists”, “Give children back their fathers” and “Stop persecuting the Crimean Tatar people”.

Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians in occupied Crimea are under enormous pressure to leave their homeland or shut up and look away when others face repression.  It is becoming dangerous for those who refuse to be silenced and they desperately need our support – through ensuring publicity and lobbying of the international community to put pressure on Russia.




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