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Russia flouts Hague Court order to reinstate the Crimean Tatar Mejlis and education in Ukrainian in occupied Crimea

Halya Coynash
It is exactly a year since the UN’s International Court of Justice ordered Russia to withdraw its extraordinary ban of the Mejlis, or self-governing body of the Crimean Tatar people, and to ensure education in Ukrainian in occupied Crimea.

It is exactly a year since the UN’s International Court of Justice ordered Russia to withdraw its extraordinary ban of the Mejlis, or self-governing body of the Crimean Tatar people, and to ensure education in Ukrainian in occupied Crimea.  Assurances before the ruling that Russia would comply with it have proven empty and the situation since then has in fact only deteriorated.  All of this will doubtless be documented in Ukraine’s full submission to the Court, due on 18 June 2018. .

The International Court of Justice [ICJ] at the Hague gave its preliminary decision on April 19, 2017, regarding claims brought by Ukraine against Russia under two international conventions to which both countries are a party.  Russia had clearly hoped, as had happened with an earlier suit brought by Georgia, that the Court would decide that it did not have jurisdiction. 

Instead, the judges accepted prime facie jurisdiction over the alleged violations of the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism through Russia’s role in the military conflict in Donbas, and of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination against Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians in occupied Crimea.

Ukraine had further asked the Court to impose provisional measures over the violations under both conventions, however the Court agreed to do so only with respect to the convention against discrimination. 

Typically, Moscow’s main response was to exaggerate the limited importance of the ICJ’s refusal to impose provisional measures over the financing of terrorism charges, while ignoring the demands regarding Crimea. 

The Russian Foreign Ministry’s statement on 2 May 2017 asserted falsely that ICJ had not demanded that Russia withdraw its ban on the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, which is the self-governing body of the main indigenous people of Crimea, and not an ‘organization’ to be arbitrarily labelled ‘extremist’.

The Court’s ruling found that “in the present case, on the basis of the evidence before the Court, it appears that some of the acts complained of by Ukraine fulfil this condition of plausibility. This is the case with respect to the banning of the Mejlis and the alleged restrictions on the educational rights of ethnic Ukrainians.

“The Court is of the opinion that Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians in Crimea appear to remain vulnerable …. The Court considers that these reports show, prima facie, that there have been limitations on the ability of the Crimean Tatars to choose their representative institutions, and restrictions in terms of the availability of Ukrainian-language education in Crimean schools. The Court concludes from this that there is an imminent risk that the acts, as set out above, could lead to irreparable prejudice to the rights invoked by Ukraine.”

The Russian Federation was therefore ordered to “refrain from maintaining or imposing limitations on the ability of the Crimean Tatar community to conserve its representative institutions, including the Mejlis” and “to ensure the availability of education in the Ukrainian language”

While the ruling was hailed as a victory for Ukraine, few expected Russia to comply.  Most commentators did, however, predict some kind of cosmetic ‘improvements’ which in fact never eventuated. 

In a recent interview, Oleksandr Sedov from the Crimean Human Rights Group said that Russia is doing nothing to ease access to education, either in Ukrainian or in Crimean Tatar, and there are absolutely no grounds for expecting an improvement in the near future.

“The only Ukrainian-language school in Feodosia is still working but the question is how formal the approach is to the supposed language of tuition. In other secondary schools, they call a parents’ gathering at the end of each school year and ask the parents to decide what language they want their children to be taught in the following year. Most choose Russian at the emphatic ‘recommendation’ of the teachers and school head. And people are simply afraid to demonstrate their Ukrainian identity since the propaganda is making Ukrainians into ‘enemies of the people’.  In fact, the situation is possibly getting worse”. (More details here)

Russia’s ban of the Mejlis as ‘extremist’ in April 2016 was internationally condemned and has been challenged in the European Court of Human Rights, as well as with the ICJ as being in violation of the UN Convention against Discrimination.

The Mejlis made its opposition to Russian occupation of Crimea clear from the outset, and the repressive measures began soon after it called on all Crimeans to boycott Russia’s pseudo-referendum on March 16, 2014.  If the initial measures mainly targeted individuals, with Mustafa Dzhemilev and the current head of the Mejlis, Refat Chubarov both banned from their homeland, this soon changed. In  September 2014, the Mejlis was evicted from its traditional headquarters, and on Jan 29, 2015, Akhtem Chiygoz, the Deputy Head of the Mejlis was arrested on legally nonsensical charges.  He had been sentenced to 8 years’ imprisonment,, and another Mejlis leader, Ilmi Umerov, to two years when they were unexpectedly released as part of a deal involving Turkey in October 2017.

Threats to ban the Mejlis began in October 2015, and on February 15, 2016 the de facto prosecutor Natalya Poklonskaya announced that an application had been made for the ban, with the claim being that the Mejlis was ‘extremist’.  There were Soviet echoes in the claim that this was based on “appeals from the Crimean Tatar population, including from the heads of Crimean Tatar organizations, asking for the activities of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis to be declared unlawful and provocation”.

The formal ban was issued on April 26, 2016, with this upheld by the Russian Supreme Court on Sep 29, 2016. 

Russia has consistently tried to treat the Mejlis as a ‘civic organization’ which can be banned as ‘extremist’.  The ‘evidence’ provided at the court hearings was quite absurd, including even a document published by Mustafa Dzhemiev back in Soviet times (1988) as well as the Mejlis’ founding documents from two decades before Russia’s annexation.  Their supposed ‘extremism’ lay in the aim declared as being the reinstatement of the Crimean Tatar people’s national and political rights as part of Ukraine.  

The Mejlis remains banned.  Although Mejlis leaders Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov were released, almost certainly as part of an exchange for two suspected Russian state-sponsored killers being held by Turkey, there have been other arrests.  

On 23 November 2017, the FSB tried to arrest, and caused the death of a world-renowned veteran of the Crimean Tatar national movement, 83-year-old Vedzhie Kashka.  Four men who had been helping the elderly woman: Asan Chapukh, Bekir Degermendzhy, Kazim Ametov and Ruslan Trubach, were arrested that day:  The first three men are in their late fifties or sixties and in poor health, and Russia is placing their lives in danger in a futile attempt to discredit the Mejlis and prominent members of the Crimean Tatar community (details here). 

In September 2017, representatives of the Mejlis lodged a formal application with the ‘High Court’ in occupied Crimea in light of the ICJ ruling, asking for a review of Russia’s ban.  In fact, several individual applications were lodged a week after the de facto prosecutor in Crimea informed the First Deputy Head of the Mejlis, Nariman Dzhelyal that it was seeking ‘clarification’ about the ban following the ICJ’s decision.

Dzhelyal rightly noted that instead of simply complying with this international court whose rulings Russia has committed itself to obey, the prosecutor had taken three months to merely ask the High Court in occupied Crimea for guidance. There had also been a separate application lodged by Russian lawyer Nikolai Polozov on July 18. 

A year after the ICJ ruling, there remains no ‘clarification’ no review, only an ever-increasing number of Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian political prisoners, many arrested in connection with their pro-Ukrainian position or civic activism, often in defence of victims of persecution.



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