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Council of Europe collaborates with Russian agency persecuting Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian political prisoners

15.11.2021
Halya Coynash
CoE logo (printed without CoE endorsement), arrests of human rights activist Emir Usein Kuku and three other political prisoners on 11.02.2016

The Council of Europe remains one of the partners of Russia’s Rosfinmonitoring, a body heavily involved in the political and religious persecution of Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians.  The Russian agency’s role looks set to become even more repressive with amendments now proposed enabling it to freeze the bank accounts of those individuals and legal entities accused of spending money on ‘unauthorized’ public demonstrations, rallies, etc.  In Russia and occupied Crimea, virtually no public event that is not pro-regime receives ‘authorization’, so the amendments would be yet another weapon against peaceful assembly and freedom of speech.

The proposed amendments ‘are still at an early stage, purportedly of ‘public discussion’, with an anti-corruption expert assessment also due.  They are, however, in keeping with the general escalation in legislative weapons against civic society and fundamental liberties.  The amendments are entitled as being ‘to certain Russian Federation legislative acts with respect to counting the financing of terrorism and / or other illegal actions.’  There is already a problem with what Russia calls both ‘terrorism’ and ‘financing of terrorism’, and the amendments, tabled on 11 October 2021, would dangerously broaden the range of individuals and organizations whose activities could be ‘countered’.  The amendments would extend powers regarding freezing bank assets etc. in connection with alleged drug trafficking; financing of ‘terrorism’; financing of ‘extremism’ and also the organizing and holding of public events that (allegedly) infringe the public order.  Although the measures would purportedly be restricted in time (accounts frozen for ten days) and would only be applied “in cases not allowing for delay”, etc., bitter experience suggests that any public gathering could be deemed as ‘infringing public order’ and potentially “leading to mass riots; pogroms; arson; disruption to vital facilities; transport or social infrastructure; and other analogous negative consequences.”

The only real restriction would be on the amount of time that bank accounts could be frozen without a court order, since all of the other terms about potential danger to public order and ‘financing’ of the organizing or holding of such rallies, etc. easily lend themselves to subjective interpretation.

It is precisely Russia’s dangerous abuse of the terms ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’ both domestically and in occupied Crimea that make it quite inexplicable that the Council of Europe is allowing its logo to be shown under the section on ‘international collaboration’ on the site of Rosfinmonitoring,  

It is possible that Rosfinmonitoring’s activities really do include fighting money laundering or the financing of international terrorism.  They also, however, involve collaboration in Russia’s mounting religious and political persecution in occupied Crimea and within the Russian Federation.  The CoE logo is on the same site as the notorious List of Terrorists and Extremists, which contains the names of the vast majority of Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian political prisoners. Most of the people on the list have been placed there long before any court verdict, yet inclusion on the list means that the person themselves (if not already imprisoned) and their families, face enormous difficulties on a day-to-day basis. 

While there is nothing else on the said website that suggests close collaboration with the Council of Europe, the latter’s own site clearly states that authorization is needed for the use of its logo, and that permission “will not be granted if such use is contrary to the Council of Europe’s values and principles,”  

Such values should include the presumption of innocence; a fair trial; freedom of conscience; etc., all of which Rosfinmonitoring is violating via its List and actions against those placed on it.

The list, for example, contains a huge number of Ukrainian and Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses, including the three Ukrainian prisoners of conscience who are already serving shocking 6 and 6.5-year prison sentences (against Serhiy FilatovArtem Gerasimov and Viktor Stashevsky). In February 2020, Jarrod Lopes from JW.org reported that “Once blacklisted by Rosfinmonitoring, an alert is associated with one’s passport indicating that he/she is suspected of money laundering, financing terrorism, and/or distributing weapons of mass destruction. Consequently, Jehovah’s Witnesses are being deprived of their jobs, businesses, unemployment compensation, pensions, and even the ability to purchase a SIM card for their cell phones or apply for car insurance. They cannot exercise inheritance rights, receive child support, receive judicial compensation for damages, execute powers of attorney, or access their bank accounts.”, for example, have reported being “deprived of their jobs, businesses, unemployment compensation, pensions, and even the ability to purchase a SIM card for their cell phones or apply for car insurance. They cannot exercise inheritance rights, receive child support, receive judicial compensation for damages, execute powers of attorney, or access their bank accounts.”

Russia has recently begun charging believers in occupied Crimea with ‘financing an extremist organization’ under Article 282.3 § 1 of Russia’s criminal code.  This may well mean as little as organizing the money for photocopies, but, like ‘organizing an extremist organization’, is a more serious charge, carrying a potential 10-year sentence.

This is clear religious persecution, prohibited not only by international law, but by Russia’s own Constitution.  That obstacle was overcome on 20 April 2017 when Russia’s Supreme Court banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses, claiming it to be an ‘extremist organization’.  It is no such thing, but the ruling gives enforcement bodies and ‘courts’ a useful cover when sentencing believers to terms of imprisonment for worshipping together and otherwise practising their faith.

The situation is even worse for Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian Muslims since Russia’s FSB is using a profoundly flawed Supreme Court ruling from 2003 as excuse for imprisoning people and passing sentences of 15-20 years or longer without any crime.  They claim to be fighting ‘terrorism’, while fabricating criminal prosecutions of civic activists, journalists or other Muslims viewed as ‘dissidents’ by claiming them to be members of Hizb ut-Tahrir.  This peaceful trans-Muslim organization is legal in Ukraine and the 2003 ruling gave no convincing explanation for calling an organization not known to have committed acts of terrorism anywhere in the world ‘terrorist’. 

If Russia’s abuse of this 2003 ruling at home could have escaped the Council of Europe’s attention, the same is not true of its weaponization of such flawed ‘terrorism’ charges in occupied Crimea.  The prosecution of well over 80 Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian Muslims and huge sentences have been condemned by international bodies, including the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe; NGOs and most democratic countries. The same is true of numerous other ‘trials’ which have led to men being added to the List, including the Chair of the Mejlis, or representative assembly, of the Crimean Tatar people Refat Chubarov and Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov

The list of Russia’s Crimean victims of persecution is long, and can be found, together with demands for their release, in numerous resolutions from the UN General Assembly; the European Parliament and others. That the same names should be on the notorious Rosfinmonitoring List is, unfortunately, to be expected.  The same cannot be true of the Council of Europe’s endorsement.

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