war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Almost 600 Ukrainians prosecuted for ‘discrediting’ Russian invading forces by supporting Ukraine in occupied Crimea

Halya Coynash
Despite constant harassment and persecution, Russia has not succeeded in crushing opposition and pro-Ukrainian sentiments in occupied Crimea

Sevastopol is a Ukrainian city. Activist from the Yellow Ribbon initiative tie yellow ribbons of resistance all over Crimea

Sevastopol is a Ukrainian city. Activist from the Yellow Ribbon initiative tie yellow ribbons of resistance all over Crimea

Less than two years after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and immediate introduction of draconian silencing laws, at least 590 prosecutions have been brought against Crimeans for supposedly ‘discrediting’ Russia’s armed forces or mercenaries, with these charges often laid merely for expressing pro-Ukrainian views.  Despite such persecution, it is increasingly clear that very many Crimeans do hold such views and are hoping for an end to Russia’s occupation of Crimea.

Crimean Process has been monitoring such prosecutions and reports that, as of 28 December 2023, 590 charges had been laid in occupied Crimea under Article 20.3.3 of Russia’s code of administrative offences.  This article was one of four administrative and criminal charges hastily added to Russian legislation within 10 days of the full-scale invasion.  While claiming to punish for ‘public acts aimed at the discrediting the use of the Russian Federation’s armed forces’, the charge was soon extended, first to cover enforcement bodies involved in Russia’s aggression, and then mercenaries, like fighters from the Wagner unit.  The latter include at least 50 thousand convicted prisoners released and pardoned for agreeing to fight in Ukraine, with it disturbingly unclear what kind of truthful information about their recruitment might be deemed to fall under Article 20.3.3. 

Most importantly, the charge has increasingly been used in occupied Crimea, against those who demonstrate pro-Ukrainian views, with people fined or even imprisoned for playing / singing Ukrainian patriotic songs; displaying the Ukrainian flag or saying ‘Glory to Ukraine’.  The Office of the President’s Representative in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea Tamila Tasheva reported that, as of the end of November 2023, over 15 million roubles had been imposed in fines for purported actions ‘discrediting’ the Russian armed forces, etc.

Crimean Process found only 37 cases where a protocol of administrative charges had been terminated or had not resulted in ‘court’ proceedings, as well as seven cases which were still awaiting such proceedings.  In all other cases, the charges had reached the occupation courts with the person invariably found ‘guilty’.  Many of these prosecutions have been reported here, together with the evident lack of any evidence to back the charges or of fundamental elements of the right to a fair trial.  Crimean Process also noted that in the vast majority of such prosecutions, information about the date and place of the ‘court hearing’ was provided much too late.  The record in this respect had been the information about such a hearing at the occupation ‘Dzhankoi district court’ which was posted a full 46 days after it had taken place.  Other infringements included the refusal to allow questioning of those giving ‘testimony’ against the person prosecuted.  Very often the ‘court’ bases its ruling solely upon the testimony of anonymous individuals, without calling them in for questioning and without examining the circumstances.  Crimean Process found, for example, that the occupation '‘Yevpatoria municipal court’ had issued three rulings with an identical quotation, expressing the alleged ‘discrediting’ in each of them. It is also typical for an ‘enforcement officer’ to be both the ‘witness’ and the person who drew up the protocol.

Such infringements, and especially the use of ‘testimony’ from anonymous witnesses are typical of all politically motivated prosecutions of Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians from occupied Crimea.  Sentences of up to 20 years have been passed on political prisoners with essentially no material evidence and highly suspect ‘secret witnesses’ whose statements cannot be verified.  Crimean Process also found a number of cases where the prosecution arose out of domestic disputes, with one party accusing the other of making negative comments about the Russian armed forces.

As reported here, denunciations are increasingly encouraged by the Russian regime, including on occupied Ukrainian territory.  Many of the prosecutions, whether under Article 20.3.3 or criminal charges, have been initiated by notorious collaborator Aleksandr Talipov and others in his so-called ‘Crimean SMERSH’ vigilante group.

Occupation ‘courts’ essentially always provide the convictions expected of them.  In one case, this was despite the fact that the ‘court’ itself acknowledged that the publication did not make it clear which army was being criticized, Ukraine’s or Russia’s.

It should be stressed that these are only the least serious of a whole arsenal of weapons of repression used against Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians in occupied Crimea.  Criminal charges over such so-called ‘discrediting’ can be laid if a person has already been prosecuted under Article 20.3.3 in the space of half a year, and the other criminal charge introduced on 4 March 2022 (Article 207.3 of the criminal code) can be used to impose hefty fines or terms of imprisonment for telling the truth about Russia’s actions in Ukraine, including the war crimes committed in Bucha, Mariupol, Izium and other cities.  Since the truth is denied by the Kremlin and defence ministry, such facts, which have been fully documented by Ukrainian and international prosecutors, are claimed to be “knowingly false information”.

In occupied Crimea, where persecution for pro-Ukrainian views began well before the full-scale invasion, other charges may also be used as weapons against those who protest against the war.  Yevpatoria street artist Bohdan Ziza is serving a 15-year sentence on preposterous ‘terrorism’ charges for a perhaps ill-considered, but harmless act of protest. 

In other cases, the claim about material ‘discrediting the Russian armed forces’ has been used as a convenient weapon for Russia’s ongoing attack on independent lawyers representing political prisoners or human rights activists.  In October 2023, for example, Alexei Ladin was imprisoned for 14 days and fined for a Facebook image and a reposted comment about Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine.

Tasheva stresses that, despite the repressive measures, Crimeans are continuing to express opposition to Russia’s war against Ukraine.  Such a level of civic resistance had not been seen before 2022. “There are various reasons, however the key one is that Crimeans feel that Ukraine is fighting for Crimea not only on the diplomatic level, but on the military.”   Crimeans, she says, have united in various movements (‘Yellow Ribbon’; ‘Crimean Partisans’, and others.  Any such civic resistance, however peaceful, is fraught with danger under Russian occupation, with ordinary citizens likely to be stopped on the street and their telephones checked.  If VPN is found to be installed on the phone, this is likely to be treated as a sign that the person has something to hide and may not be ‘loyal’. 

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