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Russia sentences human rights defender to 14 years for helping political prisoners seek justice from ECHR

Halya Coynash
Russia has reached “a new level of lawlessness” with its imprisonment of human rights defender Bakhrom Khamroev, with sinister methods that could well be used in occupied Crimea

Bakhrom Khamroev

Bakhrom Khamroev

Bakhrom Khamroev, a well-known human rights defender, has been sentenced in Russia to 14 years on charges that arose solely from his work in helping victims of repression. This is a chilling development, clearly aimed at deterring those human rights lawyers and activists who draw attention to one of the FSB’s worst conveyor belts of repression in Russia and occupied Crimea.  Khamroev was also a member of the Memorial Human Rights Centre and Memorial has noted that the FSB used the dodgy charges against him as the excuse for searches at the Memorial offices in March 2022.  

Khamroev (b. 1963) was born in Uzbekistan, but has lived in Russia since 1992 and is a Russian citizen.  He is the head of a migrant aid NGO called Yerdam, and was a member of the Memorial Human Rights Centre until Russia ignored international protest and had both this NGO and the International Memorial Society dissolved.   He had suffered persecution for his human rights work before but nothing like what began on 24 February 2022, the same day that Russia also began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. On that day, Khamroev was taken away after armed FSB officers burst into his apartment, and illegally forced his wife and a relative into a police van while they carried out their ‘search’.  As is almost always the case in occupied Crimea, the family were only able to contact Khamroev’s lawyer after the search ended and the FSB left with Khamroev who has been in detention ever since.

At that stage, Khamroev was charged with so-called ‘public calls to carry out terrorist activities, public justification of terrorism and propaganda of terrorism’ under Article 205.2 § 2 of Russia’s criminal code.  These apparently serious charges were based solely on six Facebook posts, of which two were reposts and one was merely a link to a video.  Most importantly, none had anything at all to do with terrorism.  The ‘investigators’ claimed that the posts were linked with the peaceful transnational Muslim organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is legal in Ukraine and most countries.  No explanation was ever provided for the Russian Supreme Court’s highly secretive ruling in 2003 declaring Hizb ut-Tahrir ‘terrorist’, with this one of many reasons why human rights NGOs like Memorial consider all those convicted purely of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir to be political prisoners. 

In his capacity as a human rights defender, Khamroev had highlighted Russia’s abuse of its ‘terrorism’ legislation in Russia and occupied Crimea through huge sentences merely on unproven charges of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir.  It is this activity that led to the extraordinary claim that Khramroev was ‘justifying’ and ‘making public calls’ to terrorism.

The Russian prosecutor had already used this flawed claim as one of the excuses for demanding (and obtaining) the dissolution of the Memorial Human Rights Centre.  This NGO had played a particularly vital role in documenting and publicizing Russia’s human rights violations in occupied Crimea, including its use of Hizb ut-Tahrir charges as a weapon against the Crimean Tatar human rights movement. 

On 4 March 2022, the FSB used the charges against Khamroev as the pretext for raids on two Memorial offices, as well as that of a partner NGO, the Civic Assistance Committee.  The searches lasted 12 hours, with lawyers and employees once again not allowed to be present.

It was learned on 17 October that the ‘investigators’ had added a new charge against Khamroev of ‘organizing the activities of a terrorist organisation’ (with this referring to Hizb ut-Tahrir).  This is an entirely surreal charge, one which prompted Memorial to speak of a “new level of lawlessness”, It is claimed that Khamroev, at some point which the investigators have not established, in an equally unknown place and under unknown circumstances, ‘joined Hizb ut-Tahrir’ and that he had even become ‘an organizer’ (with this charge carrying a much longer sentence.

The statement issued in protest by the Memorial Centre for the Defence of Human Rights was entitled ‘Human rights defence as terrorism: twenty years imprisonment for applying to Strasbourg?  Memorial stated that they are convinced that Khamroev is being persecuted for his consistent activities in defence of human rights and that the FSB are using his prosecution as an important instrument of pressure on Memorial.

In describing the FSB’s ‘new level of lawlessness’, Memorial points out that one of the grounds given for this new charge was that Khamroev, “not having defence lawyer status and not having been entrusted with the defence of the suspect or accused, prepared documents, justifying the activities of the participants of the given organization and sent them to the European Court of Human Rights, the law enforcement bodies of the Russian Federation and other states, in order to counter their criminal prosecution.”, as well as countering their extradition.

Memorial points out that the FSB have, essentially, described Khamroev’s entirely legitimate human rights activities. 

Since Russia’s claim that Hizb ut-Tahrir is ‘terrorist’ is based solely on a ruling behind closed doors of Russia’s Supreme Court in 2003, it is worth noting that Memorial researcher Vitaly Ponomarev believes it likely that the secretive ruling was issued to enable Russia to easily extradite refugees to Uzbekistan where they faced religious persecution. 

In both Russia and occupied Crimea, no more than that ruling is needed to sentence men to 20 years’ imprisonment or more.  The FSB use dodgy ‘experts’ and secret witnesses (who may not even know the defendant) to produce ‘proof’ of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, with literally no more required to obtain a huge sentence and for the person to be labelled a ‘terrorist’. In declaring Khamroev a political prisoner, the Memorial Centre for the Defence of Human Rights pointed out that pro-Kremlin media had immediately called Khamroev ‘a terrorist’, and he was, within 10 days, added to Russia’s notorious ‘List of terrorists and extremists’.  

The alleged ‘terrorism’, even according to the prosecution’s own argumentation, was ‘proven’ by Khamroev’s help in preparing applications to the European Court of Human Rights and to other bodies.   In this truly menacing sequel to other forms of repression, Russia is now claiming that, by questioning Russia’s flawed prosecutions on ‘Hizb ut-Tahrir charges’, human rights defenders are themselves ‘justifying terrorism’  It can, and has in Khamroev’s case, get worse.  Organize an application to the Court in Strasbourg, and the Russian FSB will claim that you ‘organized a terrorist organization’.

As in all of the trials of Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian Muslims imprisoned on ‘Hizb ut-Tahrir’ charges, Khamroev’s trial before the Second Western District Military Court was teeming with irregularities and violations of his right to a fair trial. Memorial noted on 27 April that the court had moved on to the final ‘court debate’ without studying all of the evidence and without questioning Khamroev himself.

The prosecutor had demanded an incredible 21-year sentence.  On 23 May, the court sentenced the 59-year-old human rights defender to 14 years, with the first three in a prison, the harshest of Russia’s penal institutions, with the remaining sentence in a harsh-regime prison colony. 

Bakhrom Khamroev has always denied these charges and will, of course, be appealing against the sentence. This is, however, very evidently a politically motivated attack on a human rights defender exposing Russia’s conveyor belt of repression, and on Memorial.  Under such circumstances, attention and protest from the international community about Khamroev’s persecution and Russia’s weaponization of flawed ‘Hizb ut-Tahrir prosecutions’ in occupied Crimea and in the Russian Federation is of critical importance.

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