Russian authorities in Crimea have intensified persecution of Crimean Tatars, under various pretexts and with the apparent goal of completely silencing dissent on the peninsula, Human Rights Watch said today. Crimean Tatars are a Muslim ethnic minority indigenous to the Crimean Peninsula. Many openly oppose Russia’s occupation, which began in 2014.
“Russian authorities in Crimea have relentlessly persecuted Crimean Tatars for their vocal opposition to Russia’s occupation since it began in 2014,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “They have portrayed politically active Crimean Tatars as extremists and terrorists, forced many into exile, and ensured that those who choose to stay never feel safe to speak their mind.”
Since Russia’s occupation began, Russian authorities and their proxies have subjected members of Crimean Tatar community and their supporters, including journalists, bloggers, activists, and others to harassment, intimidation, threats, intrusive and unlawful searches of their homes, physical attacks, and enforced disappearances. Complaints lodged with authorities are not investigated effectively. Russia has bannedCrimean Tatar media and organizations that criticized Russia’s actions in Crimea, including disbanding and proscribing the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar self-governing highest executive body.
In October 2017, Human Rights Watch researchers in Crimea documented criminal prosecutions for separatism against Crimean Tatars who had criticized Russia’s actions in Crimea, as well as new and ongoing baseless terrorism-related prosecutions. Researchers also documented detentionand fines for Crimean Tatars who peacefully staged single-person pickets to protest the arrest and prosecution of other Tatars. Under Russian law people who want to picket individually are not required to seek official permission.
Since 2015, Russian authorities have arrested at least 26 people on charges of involvement with the Islamist movement Hizb ut-Tahrir, banned as a terrorist organization in Russia since 2003 but not proscribed in Ukraine, nor in most of Europe. They were arrested on charges of participating in or organizing a terrorist group, solely for acts – often in private – of expression, assembly, opinion, or religious and political belief that the Russian authorities claim constitute affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir. They face from five years to life in prison. The arrests are consistent with Russia’s practice of cracking down on Muslims who preach and study Islam outside official guidelines.
In several cases, Russian police and security services ill-treated people suspected or accused of separatist, extremist, or terrorist activities and denied them due process. In one case, a former detainee said security agents beat him and gave him electric shocks to coerce him to become an informant.
In October, Russian authorities brought separatism charges against Suleiman Kadyrov, a Crimean Tatar activist, for posting a comment on social media criticizing the occupation of Crimea. The charges came several weeks after a Russian court convicted a Crimean Tatar leader, Ilmi Umerov, on separatism charges stemming from a media interview in which he criticized Russian actions in Crimea, and sentenced him to two years in prison.
In September, a Russian court in Crimea sentenced another prominent Crimean Tatar leader, Akhtem Chiygoz, to eight years in prison on bogus charges of organizing “mass riots.”
On October 25, after negotiations between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Russian authorities allowed Chiygoz and Umerov to leave Crimea for Turkey. On October 27, they arrived in Kyiv.
Under international law, the Russian Federation is an occupying power in Crimea as it exercises effective control without the consent of the government of Ukraine, and there has been no legally recognized transfer of sovereignty to Russia.
On September 25, the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine released its first report on the human rights situation in Crimea, concluding that it “has significantly deteriorated under Russian occupation.”
Russian authorities, and their proxies, should immediately stop persecution of Crimean Tatars including under the pretext of combating terrorism and extremism, cease all unjustified interference with freedom of association and assembly in Crimea, and ensure prompt, effective, and impartial investigations into all allegations of abuses perpetrated by law-enforcement against Crimean Tatars. Russian and Ukrainian authorities should ensure unfettered access to Crimea for independent human rights groups as well as humanitarian and intergovernmental organizations.
The UN Human Rights Office, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and the Council of Europe should continue to document and publicly report on the human rights situation in Crimea and urge Russian authorities to address both ongoing and past abuses. Russia’s international partners, including the European Union and its member states, Turkey, and the US should continue to call for the release of detained Crimean Tatar activists and for an end to the harassment and arbitrary actions against the Crimean Tatar community.
“It is good news that Chiygoz and Umerov are no longer at risk, but it’s also outrageous that they have had to go into exile to bring their ordeal to an end, and that others in Crimea remain incarcerated,” Williamson said. “Russia’s international partners need to press the Kremlin and Crimean authorities end the persecution of the Crimean Tatar community.”
Since 2015, Russian authorities in Crimea have charged at least 26 people, most of them Crimean Tatars, with participating in or organizing a terrorist group because of their alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Hizb ut-Tahrir, established in 1953, is an international Islamist movement that seeks to establish a worldwide caliphate based on Sharia, but publicly denounces violence as a means to achieve its goal. In 2003, Russia banned Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organization. Hizb ut-Tahrir is not banned in Ukraine or in most of Europe, but is in Germany, and several former Soviet republics, including Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as China, Egypt, and most Arab countries. The European Court of Human Rights has held that bans on Hizb ut-Tahrir in Germany and Russia do not violate the European Convention on Human Rights.
According to Sova Center, a prominent Russian think tank, as of February, 47 people were serving prison terms in Russia for alleged involvement in the movement. In its 2016 report, Sova Center highlighted Russian authorities’ and courts’ practice of charging and convicting people solely for studying, distributing religious literature, or participating in discussions on religious topics linked to Hizb ut-Tahrir.
In the past several years, Memorial Human Rights Center has designated 40 people sentenced for involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir in Russia as political prisoners.
Prior to the occupation, although Ukrainian authorities did not ban Hizb ut Tahrir, in Crimea they kept lists of suspected followers. Some of those Human Rights Watch interviewed believed the Russian authorities used these lists to identify and prosecute Crimean Tatars for involvement in the organization.
In 25 of the cases of arrests documented, the terrorism-related charges were based solely on the suspects’ alleged association with Hizb ut-Tahrir. In no case was the suspect accused of involvement in planning, carrying out, or otherwise being an accessory to, any act of violence.
Some of the detainees do not deny some level of affiliation with Hizb-ut-Tahrir, but all deny any involvement in a terrorist organization. Under Russian law, participation in a terrorist group (article 205.5, part 2 of the Russian Criminal Code) is punishable by a prison sentence of 5 to 10 years. Punishment for organizing the activities of a terrorist group (part 1 of article 205.5) ranges from 15 years to life.
In all the cases documented, law enforcement agents searched suspects’ homes, confiscating computer equipment, telephones, flash drives, and other data storage, and Islamic literature, then detained them allegedly on suspicion of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Activists and lawyers working on behalf of those detained told Human Rights Watch that most of the evidence investigators presented consists of video or audio recordings of meetings in people’s apartments at which people discussed interpretations of the Quran or their disagreements with Russia’s actions in Crimea; possession of religious literature; and meetings, conversations, and other actions allegedly aimed at recruiting new members.
The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) reported that it had identified and eliminated Hizb ut-Tahrir cells in Yalta, Bakhchisarai, Simferopol, and Sevastopol. In each town, authorities detained on average four to six people, charging one person as a leader of a cell and the others as members.
In addition to the cases documented, in August 2016, a citizen of Kyrgyzstan, Akhmatzhon Abdulaev, was arrested in Crimea. According to Crimea SOS, a Ukrainian rights group monitoring the human rights situation in Crimea, authorities charged him with abetting terrorist activity and participation in Hizb ut-Tahrir and he is in pretrial detention in Simferopol.
As an occupying power, Russia should respect, unless absolutely prevented from doing so, Ukrainian laws that were in force in Crimea when it commenced its occupation. However, Russia rejects its status as an occupying power and applies its federal laws to Crimea, including criminalizing activity not previously criminalized on the peninsula. This notwithstanding, all relevant human rights treaties, including the European Convention on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention against Torture, apply in Crimea and all authorities, whether they are Russian or Crimean acting under Russian authority are bound by these treaties.
Russia is bound to respect the rights of Crimean residents, including those of freedom of opinion, expression, assembly and association, and religion, freedom from arbitrary detention and ill-treatment including torture, and rights to fair trial, due process, and privacy. The Russian actions against Crimean Tatars that Human Rights Watch documented violate these rights and in total may be considered to amount to a policy of persecution against Crimean Tatars.
While it may fall within Russia’s discretion to proscribe Hizb ut-Tahrir and designate it as a terrorist organization, that does not give Russian authorities carte blanche to use the criminal law as a tool to suppress non-violent opposition, criticism or protest. Any and all application of the criminal law must comport with international standards on due process and focus on criminal conduct, not be used to punish exercise of basic rights such as free speech, assembly, and opinion.
The evidence against the Crimean Tatars prosecuted is not that they engaged in, advocated, or aided and abetted acts of violence. Rather the evidence presented against those accused of involvement in a terrorist organization is primarily discussions during meetings, often in private apartments, on interpretations of the Quran or Russia’s actions in Crimea, or possession of religious literature. The prosecution on terrorism charges of Crimean Tatars for non-violent speech and, in particular, the equating of speech with acts of terrorism or extremism, is an unjustified interference with freedom of opinion, expression and religion.
Russia’s use of the ban on Hizb ut-Tahrir to go after and lock up Crimean Tatars who have not engaged in criminal behavior, but who may oppose Russian occupation or are discussing their religious and political beliefs, is not only a violation of freedom of association but is a misuse of the criminal justice system for political ends. These actions are further compounded when the Russian authorities deny people the right to peacefully protest rights violations, whether in a collective or as individuals, and punish them for peaceful exercise of their right to protest.