UN report slams Russia’s use of torture and kangaroo courts in occupied Crimea
Torture used by Russia’s FSB to extract ‘confessions’ and ‘trials’ based solely on anonymous ‘witnesses’, whose testimony the defence are prevented from questioning. Total impunity for such torture, and prosecution of a witness who was courageous enough to retract testimony beaten out of him in court. These are just some of the grave abuses detailed in the UN Secretary General’s Report on the Human Rights Situation “in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, Ukraine”. The report is important for many reasons, not least the fact that it clearly states that Crimea is occupied territory.
Russia is using its denial that it is occupying Crimea as a method for trying to avoid observer missions. In February this year, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reiterated earlier requests for such a mission. Russia claimed it was read to discuss this, but on condition that it was “organized in compliance with the rules regulating visits to the territory of the Russian Federation”. Crimea is nothing of the sort, and therefore OHCHR and other bodies are forced to use other methods for obtaining information via its human rights monitoring mission in Ukraine. Since the methods involve direct interviews with victims of such abuse and verification of their story through various different means, this means that the basic methods Russia is using can be learned, but not the scale of this use (since many political prisoners are held somewhere in occupied Crimea or Russia).
The UN Secretary-General does not use terms like ‘kangaroo courts’, but the report does detail egregious violations of the right to a fair trial. The report notes, for example, that “at least 10 persons (all men) were convicted almost exclusively based on anonymous witness testimony.”
In a report on the situation from April 2014 – April 2020, ODHCR mentioned at least 13 cases, but in fact the number of people whose trials are based almost solely on such ‘anonymous witnesses’ is, in fact, much higher. Essentially all the trials of Crimean Tatars on charges of involvement in the peaceful Hizb ut-Tahrir movement are based on such testimony as well as on illicit tapes of innocuous conversations which FSB ‘experts’ interpret as required. The ODHCR report noted that “in none of these cases did judges verify that the interests of the witnesses in remaining anonymous could justify limiting the rights of the defence to fully cross-examine witnesses.” Judges invariably reject the defence’s application for them to be identified. Such anonymous individuals are not present in the courtroom, and voice-altering equipment is used. On numerous occasions, it has been clear that the ‘witness’ was receiving prompts from somebody in the room with them. There have also been cases where the defendants and their lawyers have been able to identify the men and demonstrate that these are individuals whose precarious legal status in Crimea meant that they could easily be pressured into ‘testifying’ as demanded.
It is quite clear that the judges are complicit in this travesty of justice. Indeed, the Secretary-General’s report notes that “Importantly, in these cases, judges limited the right of the defence to cross-examine such witnesses by disallowing most of the questions that could have impeached the witnesses’ credibility.”.
Russia’s use of ‘anonymous witnesses’ is not very far removed from the anonymous denunciations used during Stalin’s Terror to get men or women taken away by night, and often executed. There were plenty of cases where the ‘denunciations’ were from people who hoped to take over the arrested person’s apartment or gain some other material benefit. The only real difference is that the victims are no longer executed, but they can be and are sentenced to up to 20 years on entirely spurious charges.
While the Secretary-General’s report avoids categorical statements about violation of the right to a fair trial, it does note that the “OHCHR received credible allegations from lawyers that because of the apparent bias of judges against the defence, defendants had little to no prospects in court of defending themselves against FSB prosecution. In such cases, judges frequently denied without explanation defence lawyers’ motions to call and examine defence witnesses, even when the witnesses were present in court and their testimony would have assisted the defendants’ position. Similarly, judges refused to issue court orders compelling third parties to produce evidence, such as personal records or data from global navigation satellite systems, although such evidence was of critical importance to prove the defendants’ innocence and the defence had no other way to obtain it than by court order.”
“OHCHR continued to document cases where individuals arrested by Russian Federation law enforcement officers in Crimea were denied access to their lawyers.”
OHCHR will doubtless have spoken with former political prisoners Yevhen Panov; Oleksiy Stohniy and several other men who were tortured and placed under huge psychological pressure while prevented from seeing contracted lawyers. The FSB uses such methods all the time, in part because the Russian ‘courts’ later refuse to discard ‘testimony’ provided under torture during that period.
Torture and ill-treatment
The Secretary-General’s report is based on OHCHR findings which cover a six-month period. During the last of these reporting periods, it verified three cases, involving three men. “In all three cases, torture and ill-treatment were used to coerce victims either to self-incriminate or to provide incriminating information against third parties. The victims described beatings, threats of physical and sexual violence, and deprivation of sleep and food in cases in which nutrition at regular intervals was medically necessary”.
“OHCHR is not aware of any case in which the alleged perpetrators were held accountable”.
There is, however, one case already where the FSB have revenged themselves on a Crimean Tatar who openly retracted testimony given under torture and lodged a formal complaint.
The above are just a few of a litany of human rights violations committed by Russia in occupied Crimea. The report can be downloaded in full here.