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Strasbourg demands answers from Russia about Tatar activist jailed for criticizing invasion of Crimea

Halya Coynash

The European Court of Human Rights has sent the Russian government questions regarding the prosecution and imprisonment of Tatar activist Rafis Kashapov for six posts on the VKontakte social network.  The move will only indirectly help Kashapov who was released a month ago after serving the full three-year sentence, but is of major importance given the number of other people whom Russia is prosecuting or has already jailed for similar criticism of its occupation of Crimea and aggression in Eastern Ukraine.

Damir Gainutdinov from the Agora Human Rights Group, who is representing Kashapov at ECHR, told RBC that the Court’s letter was received on January 12.  The Court asks the Russian government the following:

if there were appropriate and sufficient grounds for the pre-trial detention of Kashapov or whether his right to security and personal inviolability (Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights) was violated;

whether the sentence for six VKontakte posts constituted interference in the civic activist’s freedom of expression, and if so, whether such interference was necessary in a democratic society.  

Russia has been given until 4 May 2018 to provide its response.

This was Russia’s first prosecution under a new article of the criminal code which came into force in May 2014, two months after annexation of Crimea.  It was feared from the outset that Article 280.1, which punishes for something called ‘public calls to action aimed at violating Russia’s territorial integrity’;  would be used against Russians or Ukrainians in occupied Crimea who criticize Russia’s aggression.  This is essentially what has happened with charges increasingly laid for social media posts indicating opposition to Russia’s invasion and occupation.

According to Gainutdinov, “the Kashapov trial confirmed the extraordinarily low standards of evidence earlier established in ‘extremism’ cases; the total refusal of the courts to even assess the defence’s arguments; the ignoring of the judgement of the Russian Supreme Court’s Plenary on extremism cases, not to mention ECHR case-law”.

He adds that it was the Kashapov case that determined the later real prison sentences on similar charges against Andriy Bubeev and Darya Polyudova for posts in the social media. 

One of three prosecutions thus far under the same Article 280.1 in occupied Crimea is against Crimean Tatar activist Suleyman Kadyrov over a single repost on Facebook with the comment ‘Crimea is Ukraine”.  The other two: against Crimean Tatar leader Ilmi Umerov and journalist Mykola Semena were equally in violation of freedom of expression, only expressed in an interview in Umerov’s case, and an article which Semena wrote.

Kashapov, the Head of the Tatar Public Centre,  was arrested on Dec 28, 2014 and remained in custody throughout the pre-trial ‘investigation’ and court proceedings. 

He was sentenced on 15 September, 2015 to three years’ imprisonment after being found guilty of ‘ inciting hatred or enmity’ (Article 282 § 1 of the Criminal Code) and “public calls to actions aimed at violation of the Russian Federation’s territorial integrity” via the Internet (Article 280.1 § 2).  This was upheld at appeal level in November 2015.

The sentence was reportedly based on the testimony of people pulled in off the street and asked leading questions about the ‘impression’ that Kashapov’s texts made on them.  

Only four posts were mentioned at the time of the trial and all remain available on VKontakte.  Had there been any validity to the charges, these texts should surely have been removed.  Instead they are left, a telling reminder of the price that may be extracted for legitimate expressions of freedom of speech.

There is a brief post entitled Yesterday – Hitler and Danzig, today Putin and Donetsk!  It shows pictures of Putin with the caption reading: “Crimea has always been and remains an inalienable part of Russia” and of Hitler saying “Danzig was – and is a German city”.

The text asserts that since Russia’s occupation of Crimea the new unrecognized authorities have been destroying everything Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar.

The text Crimea and Ukraine will be free of the occupiers! reports a demonstration in Ankara with banners reading, “Putin, get out of Crimea!” and calling both Stalin and Putin murderers.  The protest, which Kashapov writes was supported by a large group of Crimean Tatars, was against a visit to the Turkish capital by Russian President Vladimir Putin.  It criticizes the Turkish authorities for meeting with Putin and says that the latter is following Joseph Stalin’s tradition and carrying out a chauvinistic policy with respect to the Crimean Tatars.  He mentions the 18 Crimean Tatars who have disappeared since Russia’s invasion and searches of homes, mosques and religious schools.  He speaks of Russian “karateli” – those carrying out punitive operations and a term regularly used on Russian television but about Ukrainians.

In the post “Let’s defend Ukraine and the entire Turkic world!” Kashapov suggests among other things that Putin needs a victory over the Ukrainian people in order to remain in power.  He says that Putin’s plan is to crush the Ukrainian revolution, destabilize the situation, etc.  In short, roughly similar to what any number of analysts regularly write and exactly the position put in the report Putin. War that Boris Nemtsov was planning to write when he was gunned down outside the Kremlin in Feb 2015.

One final entry has a photo collage with the title “Where there’s Russia, there are tears and death”.   The photos are from conflict in Moldova; Chechnya; Dagestan; Georgia and Ukraine. 

An ‘expert assessment’ asserted that Kashapov’s texts deliberately stirred up hatred to the following: “Russians”; “Russian authorities”, the Crimean “occupation authorities”; “President Vladimir Putin”.  They said, for example, that Kashapov’s texts created a negative attitude to the actions of the Russian authorities in Crimea and the impression that the peninsula was illegally joined to Russia; and that it is not a part of Russia.  They also asserted that Kashapov calls to action to defend Crimea from Russian occupation. 

Where they found the latter was unclear.  Certainly the Sova Centre which monitors hate speech and xenophobia found no grounds for the accusations against Kashapov who was also recognized as a political prisoner by the Memorial Human Rights Centre. 

He was finally released on December 27, 2017, having served his sentence to the very last day.




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