Last Saturday, March 18, marked three years since Russia annexed Crimea.
Just a few months after pro-Europe protests, known as Euromaidan, started in Ukraine in late 2013, pro-Russian forces invaded Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, which was still under Ukrainian control. The Russians spearheaded a referendum in Crimea, on the question of rejoining the Russian Federation (Crimea had been part of Russia prior to 1991). The overwhelming majority of Crimea’s population voted in favor of annexation, which the international community considers illegal. Since then, the peninsula has become one of the toughest places for human rights defenders and civil activists.
Freedom of expression, political and religious rights, and the right to assembly, among others, have significantly deteriorated in Crimea since 2014. In an attempt to establish full political control of the peninsula, after annexation, local Russian authorities immediately started targeting dissidents, opponents of the annexation, and ethnic minorities, such as Crimean Tatars.
Crimean Tatars, a largely secular Muslim minority of about 300,000 people, have continuously resisted Russia’s occupation of their homeland. The group vocally opposed the annexation of Crimea, which evoked memories of its decades-long tensions with the Russian leadership. In 1944, under orders from Joseph Stalin, Crimea’s entire Tatar population was deported to Central Asia, for allegedly collaborating with the Nazis. Their descendants returned to the peninsula in the 1980s, which was part of Ukraine at the time.
Following Crimea’s annexation, the Kremlin exerted its authoritarian grip over the Tatars, by shutting down many of their media outlets and assuming control over the Tatars’ public and religious life. From closing mosques to shutting down Tatar media to preventing the community from commemorating the 71st anniversary of its deportation, the Tatars’ basic rights to assembly, freedom of speech, and religion have been systematically eroded.
Russian authorities have also used legislation and intimidation tactics to curb dissent and impede the work of human rights defenders in Crimea. In April 2016, the Russian prosecutor designated the Mejlis, the supreme representative and executive body for Crimea’s Tatars, as an extremist group, and declared all activity associated with the Tatar governing body unlawful.
Mustafa Dzhemilev, a long-time Soviet dissident and historic leader of the Crimean Tatars, has been barred by Russian authorities from entering his homeland for five years. A former chairman of the Mejlis, Dzhemilev has been at the forefront of Crimean Tatar opposition to Russian occupation of the peninsula. He vocally opposed the referendum in March 2014.
Several other leaders of the Crimean Tatar community, who have opposed annexation, have been charged with threatening Russia’s “territorial integrity.” These prosecutions were brought under amended anti-extremism legislation, which was passed in July 2014. This law, which has been criticized as vague and deeply problematic, criminalizes any political activity or opposition to Russian control over Crimea. The legislation, which is part of Russia’s Criminal Code, makes separatism a felony punishable by up to five years imprisonment.
The government has also singled out Tatar human rights defenders, like Emir Usein Kuku, who has been in custody in Simferopol, Crimea, since February 2016. He is accused of terrorism and alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization designated as a terrorist group by Russia. During his extended pre-trial detention, Kuku was forced to undergo psychiatric examination. On February 20, the Supreme Court of Crimea extended Kuku’s pre-trial detention yet again, to March 8, 2018.
Tatar human rights lawyers have also been targeted in Russia’s “fight” against extremism. Emil Kurbedinov, a prominent human rights lawyer working to defend Crimean Tatars, was detained by representatives from Crimea’s Centre for Counteracting Extremism in January 2017. On January 26 Kurbedinov was found guilty of “propagandizing for extremist organizations” because of a post on the social network Vkontakte, dating back to June 6, 2013, which displayed “symbols of the terrorist organization Hizb ut Tahrir.”
Kurbedinov was released on February 5, in a major win for the human rights community and civil rights activists in Crimea. Still, many others remain under threat, in a crackdown on freedoms and liberties that may not return to Crimea any time soon.