'Systematic persecution' of Crimean Tatars

The Crimean Tatar community has been subject to systematic persecution by the Russian authorities since the occupation and illegal annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, Amnesty International charges in a report released Dec. 14. The report, "In the Dark: The Silencing of Dissent" (PDF) looks at repressive tactics employed by Russian authorities against the Crimean Tartar community and other dissenting voices in the two and a half years they have been in control the Crimean peninsula. "As the most visible and cohesive group in Crimea opposed to the Russian occupation, the Crimean Tatar people have been deliberately targeted by the de facto local and Russian authorities in a wave of repression aimed at silencing their dissent and ensuring the submission of every person in Crimea to the annexation," said John Dalhuisen, director of Amnesty's Europe and Central Asia Program.

"Through the adoption wholesale of the repressive Russian legal framework in Crimea, which was in itself a violation of international law, the Russian authorities have prosecuted and forced into exile virtually all dissenting voices, including key leaders and activists within the Crimean Tatar community," Dalhuisen added.

And this has been in the context of a broader crackdown. "As well as being used as a tool against the Crimean Tatar minority, this legal framework has had disastrous consequences more generally for freedom of assembly and a free media in Crimea," he said. "However popular Crimea’s annexation may be with many on the peninsula, there is no escaping the fact that it has come at a very high price indeed for those that oppose it."

Dalhuisen called for the restoration of autonmous powers to the Crimean Tatars' regional assembly. "All restrictions on the Meijlis must be lifted, and criminal proceedings designed to harass and intimidate its members, and others that peacefully oppose the Russian occupation and annexation should cease."

Even before the Mejlis was outlawed, the de facto local and Russian authorities were pursuing prominent figures from the organization. Its leader, Refat Chubarov was forcibly exiled from Crimea, as was his predecessor, Mustafa Dzhemiliev, a Crimean Tatar veteran human rights activist and vocal opponent of the occupation. Following the banning of the Mejlis, the authorities turned their attention to the remaining senior members of the organization still in Crimea, including deputy leader Ilmi Umerov.

After appearing in a TV interview in which he insisted that Russia should leave Crimea, Ilmi Umerov was taken for questioning by officials from the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). He was informed he was being investigated for “threatening the territorial sovereignty of the Russian Federation." After several months under investigation, he was forcibly confined to a psychiatric institution and for the purpose of a "psychiatric examination" and placed in a closed ward for patients with severe conditions.

Another deputy leader, Akhtem Chiygoz, was arrested in January 2015, accused of having organized "mass disturbances" following street clashes between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian elements in February 2014. According to media footage and eye-witness accounts, he was one of those attempting to keep the crowds apart to prevent violence. After spending more than 15 months in detention, his trial began in August. He has not been allowed to attend the court in person, participating instead via a poor Skype connection, meaning he cannot hear all that is being said in the courtroom or consult with his lawyer in private. His trial is ongoing.

Ervin Ibragimov, a Crimean Tatar activist, disappeared on May 24. He had been part of an organization aimed at promoting the rights of Crimean Tatars and their cultural heritage following Crimea's annexation. Shortly before he went missing, he had told friends he was being followed.

Russia has also used its anti-terror legislation to target ethnic Crimean Tartars. Nineteen men, including human rights defender Emir-Usein Kuku, have been arrested and faced prosecution on charges of being members of the proscribed terrorist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir. Amnesty International believes the charges against him and quite possibly others, to be unfounded.

"The cases documented in this report demonstrate the ruthlessness of the Russian authorities in brooking absolutely no dissent to their rule in Crimea," said Dalhuisen. "The international community may have few tools to address the underlying politics, but it must speak up for those being bullied and harassed into silence." (AI, Dec. 14)

Dutch court orders Crimean artifacts returned to Ukraine

The Amsterdam District Court ruled on Dec. 14 that Crimean gold artifacts are to be returned to Ukraine and not to Russia-controlled Crimea. The artifacts—including gems, helmets and scabbards, some dating to the Scythian culture— were on loan to Amsterdam's Allard Pierson Museum when Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014. Russian authorities argued that the artifacts should be in the possession of Crimea since they were discovered in the peninsula. In its decision, the court ruled that only sovereign countries may claim objects as cultural heritage. Since Ukraine, and not Crimea, is sovereign, the treasures must be returned to Ukraine. Crimean museums have three months to appeal the ruling. (Jurist, Dec. 15; NYT, Dec. 14)

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