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Six Years of Occupation: Searches, Detentions, and a Ban on Freedom of Speech

February 28, 2020 11:06 0 1611
The Russian authorities in Crimea have systematically violated human rights during the past six years of occupation. On February 24, 2020, the team at CrimeaSOS released its second publication of “Encyclopedia of Repressions in Crimea Since the Beginning of the Russian Occupation” which documents the litany of blatant human rights violations that have occurred. Our reporting documents how the Russian occupiers have conducted illegal detentions and searches as well as violating Crimeans’ freedom of speech and assembly.

The Russian military, supported by unmarked paramilitary forces, began the military occupation of Crimea at the end of February 2014. Camouflaged Russian soldiers without insignia seized government buildings on the peninsula and denied the Ukrainian military access to the region over the course of a couple of days. These forces took control of the Parliament and Council of Ministers of Crimea at night on February 27, 2014. In March 2014, the occupying authorities held a “referendum” and used its disputed results to have the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, sign an “agreement on the accession [of the Republic of Crimea] into the Russian Federation.”

Contrary to statements from Russian officials, the military operation resulted in casualties among the Ukrainian Armed Forces and civilian population opposed to the Russian occupation. Despite the Kremlin’s hopes and attempts to legitimize the falsified referendum, the international community has condemned the occupation of Crimea and regularly draws attention to the worsening human rights situation in the region. The Russian authorities have continually violated human rights in occupied Crimea for the past six years. Analysts at CrimeaSOS documented the violations that have occurred between February 20, 2014, and February 20, 2019, including:

  • 119 politically motivated criminal prosecutions against Crimean residents resulting in 97 prison sentences
  • 15 forced disappearances in which the victims have still not been foun
  • 20 murders or killings that have happened because of the de-facto authorities’ actions or inaction
  • 314 individuals have been subjected to torture or other forms of cruel, inhumane, and degrading forms of punishment and treatment
  • 387 individuals have been prosecuted for politically motivated misdemeanors
  • 405 illegal and arbitrary detentions
  • 366 politically motivated searches

These figures represent documented instances, therefore the real number could be higher.

Banning Freedom of Speech

Russia began suppressing freedom of speech in occupied Crimea in parallel with the military invasion. In the first months of the occupation, the occupying authorities blocked independent news outlets and systematically targeted their journalists, including foreigners. This included detentions, physical assaults, and threatening journalists; preventing journalists from accessing events; and destroying their equipment. Russia deliberately cleared the informational space to suppress Ukrainian media and replace it with the Kremlin’s propaganda. To achieve this, the occupiers first seized the broadcasting center ARK and, by March 2014, had completely replaced all Ukrainian programming with Russian. By April 2014, they had also removed the majority of Ukrainian radio stations from the airwaves and by June 2014 had removed Ukrainian channels from cable providers.

In November 2014, the Russian Duma passed a law requiring all news outlets in Crimea to re-register before April 2015 or face closure. Before the occupation began, there were nearly 3,000 news outlets in operation in Crimea. After the law passed, only 232 were able to re-register. Many of the news outlets tried multiple times to re-register but were denied.

In the fall of 2015, The Russian federal body responsible for censorship, Roskomnadzor (the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media), began to prevent Crimeans access to Ukrainian new agencies’ websites and web portals on the pretense that their material was either prohibited in Russia or advocated civil unrest and extremism. 

Together with prosecuting news outlets as legal entities, the occupying authorities also exerted systematic pressure on journalists. The methods of pressure included detentions, searches, criminal charges, and accusations that the targeted journalists engaged in sabotage and advocating extremism. In the six years of occupation, there have been 7 criminal cases opened against journalists. Some of the charges were made after the accused had already left Crimea, including those against Anna Andriivska and Andrii Klimenko.

The occupying Russian authorities have used various forms of harassment to persecute journalists, including:

  • Misdemeanor charges (2 instances)
  • Illegal detentions (48 instances)
  • House searches (19 instances)
  • Physical assaults (3 instances)
  • Interrogations and so-called “preventative conversations” (13 instances)
  • Preventing journalists from carrying out their professional duties (69 instances)
  • Refusing to grant journalists the appropriate accreditation (4 instances)

The de-facto authorities’ actions have eliminated independent journalism in Crimea at an institutional level. Because professional journalists have been denied the possibility to report on events in Crimea, civil society activists and other motivated persons have taken it upon themselves to serve the vital societal function of news reporting. These citizen journalists use social media to share political news, information on searches and political prisoners’ cases, and other relevant information with the public. 

Nevertheless, the occupying authorities have also taken to the internet to suppress civil society activists’ activity. The authorities’ primary method of combating the activists is to employ anti-extremist legislation, including, in part, Article 205.2 of the Criminal Code of Russia (public calls for terrorism on the internet) and Article 282.1 (inciting hatred, enmity, or degrading human dignity). By broadly interpreting these laws, Russia can punish any expression of freedom of speech and dissemination of information. As a result, social media posts made 3-4 years ago—in some cases, even before the occupation began—are grounds for opening criminal proceedings. Now, after six years of occupation, Russia exerts total control over the informational space in Crimea. 

Illegal Detentions

Russia has established total control over peaceful assemblies and political action in occupied Crimea. Whereas in Ukraine applying for an event permit is a matter of notification, in Russia it is a matter of permission. 

Since the summer of 2014, Russian authorities at the federal and regional levels have increased pressure on the organizers and attendees of public gatherings in order to establish absolute control over the public sphere. In part, the authorities have achieved this by implementing the following laws and rulings:

  • Stricter sentences for violating laws against public events
  • Shortening the deadline for submitting applications for public events
  • Limiting the places and times approved for peaceful assemblies 

In effect, these measures mean that the occupying authorities rarely grant permission to the opposition to hold significant public events.

The authorities exert pressure on the organizers and attendees of public gatherings. There are many known instances of detentions, abductions, arrests, “preventative conversations,” and violent assaults by pro-government organizations, such as Crimean Self-Defense (Krymskaya Samooborona). Additionally, to exert further pressure, the authorities:

  • Punish participants with RUB 5,000-20,000 fines and up to 40 hours of forced labor 
  • Issue threats
  • Force participants to sign documents in which they confess to misdemeanor offenses
  • Conduct interrogations
  • Collect DNA samples
  • Examine cell phones
  • Force persons to sign documents confessing that they participated in undesired events. 

As a result, Crimeans have been forced to recognize that they may only express their opinion when the authorities allow it. The only legal form of protest is a single-person picket, which is protected by Article 31 of the Russian Constitution. A single-person picket is protected at the legal level and does not require prior permission from the authorities. This law does not, however, stop the occupying Russian authorities in Crimea from targeting activists. The clearest example happened on October 14, 2017, when 100 people engaged in single-person pickets across Crimea in protest against the repression of Crimean Tatars and Muslims by the security services. The authorities detained 80 people that day in response. 

Many of the detentions are conducted on days of remembrance or days of mourning, such as the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of the Deportation of Crimean Tatars and the Anniversary of the Birth of Taras Shevchenko. During these important days, conservative estimates put the number of detained at 128 and more than 115 of the detentions occurred during the observation of the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of the Deportation of Crimean Tatars. Journalists carrying out their professional duties were among the detained. The police justified their actions by suggesting that they were checking documents, despite the fact that the detained were brought back to police stations even after providing passports and credentials.

In response to increased criminal proceedings and searches, activists began to hold gatherings at courthouses and sites where the authorities were carrying out investigations. The authorities charged these activists with allegedly participating in unsanctioned events; despite the fact that the Venice Commission clearly states that gatherings of this type do not require prior permission and, if conducted peacefully, cannot be broken up.

There are multiple instances in which the de-facto authorities have detained activists protesting in support of persons facing politically motivated prosecution. These activists are often held as witnesses or without an explanation for their detention. In 2014, for example, no less than 7 people were illegally detained in the so-called “May 3rd Case” while no less than 4 people were illegally detained for the “February 26th Case” in 2015. From 2016-2017, the authorities detained several lawyers who were representing defendants in politically motivated cases. In 2016, for example, Emyl Kurbedinov and Edem Semedliaev were detained multiple times without an explanation by the Federal Security Service of Russia (FSB) on the administrative border between Crimea and mainland Ukraine. On January 27, 2017, the FSB detained Nikolai Polozov, who at the time was representing Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov, both Deputy Chairmen of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People. The FSB forcibly brought Polozov to the FSB headquarters in Simferopol and interrogated him as a witness to his defendants’ alleged crimes. These actions violated Article 56 Part 3 Section 2 of the Criminal Code of Russia, which states that a lawyer cannot be questioned as a witness about circumstances that they learned while representing their client.

The occupying Russian authorities most often detain activists while they are crossing the administrative border between Crimea and mainland Ukraine. This practice was first documented on July 1, 2014, and, by 2015, this practice came into widespread use. The Russian authorities illegally detain various persons entering and leaving Crimea who they believe are opposed to the occupation of Crimea, including Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar activists, relatives of political prisoners, observant Muslims, football fans, and others. In many cases, the authorities seize their documents, copy data from their mobile phones, and hold them on the pretense of verifying their documents for extended periods in facilities not intended for lengthy detentions. In November 2017, the authorities detained 7 wives of political prisoners from the “Hizb ut-Tahrir Case” at the administrative border crossing in Armyansk. The women were returning from home to Crimea after visiting mainland Ukraine. Several of the women’s health worsened while being detained. Additionally, it is presumed that the Crimean Fedor Kostenko was forcibly disappeared while attempting to cross the administrative border. His current status and whereabouts remain unknown.

It is important to note that detained persons are also often subjected to psychological and physical abuse and torture. Examples of this practice include Enver Krosh, Rinat Paralamov, Peter Borodin, and Akhmet Mustafaev. The de-facto authorities assault the victims to force them into collaborating, giving information about religious organizations’ activities, and providing false testimonies against religious and Crimean Tatar activists.The illegal detentions easily lend themselves to the conclusion that the so-called law enforcement officers do not heed laws on policing. In most cases, de-facto law enforcement officers do not identify themselves or provide a reason for the detentions. Furthermore, they also regularly violate international and Russian law during interrogations by, among other acts, preventing lawyers access to their clients and denying “suspects” the right to make phone calls. Additionally, the authorities forcibly collect detainees’ fingerprints and DNA; store the information in a database; and, in the future, could use the data to fabricate evidence in criminal and civil cases.

The occupying authorities use illegal detentions as a response to any sort of political, civil or religious activism outside of the Russian state’s control. Compared to more egregious human rights violations, illegal detentions may have a less negative effect on the targeted groups but they nevertheless strengthen the atmosphere of pervasive fear in Crimean Tatar society and can lead to tragic consequences. Vedzhiye Kashka, an elderly hero of the Crimean Tatar national movement, died as a result of an FSB operation in November 2019 while scores of political activists, fearing likely illegal detentions, have fled Crimea.

Illegal Searches

The occupying authorities in Crimea use illegal searches and detentions as both an instrument of repression and fear against pro-Ukrainian activists and observant Muslims as well as a method of opening criminal cases against them. As a general rule, the authorities do not actually uncover any incriminating evidence during the searches but instead “find” ammunition, weapons, and explosives that they’ve planted at the scene. In response, the victims refute that the items belong to them and confirm that they were planted by the security services. In most cases, the security services only actually seize religious literature and computers from the victims. From March 2014 to February 26, 2020, there have been 366 documented instances of politically motivated searches with the real number likely higher. This means that there is a politically motivated search at least once every 5-7 days.   

The sanctity of a private residence is a norm and standard of international law, protected by international agreements on human rights including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Per Article 8 of the ECHR, “there shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of [the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence] except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the Country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

In practice, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) interprets a “residence” as not only an individual’s private property but also a legal entity’s offices and facilities. The ECtHR has established the precedent through rulings that searches should only be conducted as a last resort once law enforcement has already attempted all other less intrusive means of achieving their goal. 

It is important to note that the searches in Crimea are frequently accompanied by gross procedural violations. The authorities may only legally conduct a search once they have received a court order and issued criminal charges. For the authorities to conduct a search or inspection as part of a criminal investigation, they must not only possess evidence but also documentation confirming the legality of their actions. 

In many cases, law enforcement officers do not present documentation during searches nor is it even clear if they have received permission from a court. Even when a search has been court-ordered, officers do not provide detailed information to the concerned parties.

Since August 2014, the Russian security services have used searches as a means to conduct mass raids on the homes of Crimean Tatars. This practice took place as part of the politically motivated “May 3rd Case,” which the occupying authorities opened in response to Crimean Tatar and other activists’ meeting with FMustafa Dzhemilev (the leader of the Crimean Tatar people) at the administrative border between Crimea and mainland Ukraine. Russia had earlier banned Dzhemilev from entering Crimea. Under the pretense of investigating the case, the authorities raided Crimean Tatar homes across Crimea in the hopes of finding incriminating evidence, such as drugs, weapons, and banned religious literature. From the end of 2014 to the beginning of 2015, the authorities used the so-called “February 26th Case” as a pretense to conduct further raids. Since 2015, the “Hizb ut-Tahrir Case” has been used for this purpose. This practice by the occupying Russian authorities continues to the present. Since 2017, the authorities have exerted concerted pressure on members of the social movement Crimean Solidarity through the use of searches and other coercive means. In the last two years, the authorities have searched almost every active member of the movement and opened criminal cases against many of them.

Searches in Crimea generally follow a standard pattern The security services raid a residence early in the morning, around 4-6 a.m., and lock down the surrounding area. The raids are most often conducted by a combination of the FSB, General Administration for Combating Extremism, National Guard of Russia (Rosgvardiya), Special Purpose Mobile Units (OMON), and police. The security services burst into the building in full gear with helmets, weapons, and masks. In some instances, there are plainclothes officers from the FSB and General Administration for Combating Extremism without insignia. During the searches, the security services exert excessive physical and psychological pressure on the victims by forcing them to lie facedown on the ground and handcuffing them irrespective of whether they resist or not. Furthermore, the de-facto law enforcement officers rarely identify themselves or provide a reason for the search. They begin the search by breaking down the front door if the residents do not open it within minutes of their arrival. The security services often bring with them their own “witnesses” and avoid involving independent witnesses. They also refuse to allow the victims to make phone calls or contact a lawyer. Furthermore, if a victim’s lawyer does arrive at the scene, the authorities do not allow the lawyer to enter the premises. It is not unusual for an ambulance to be called to the scene to provide medical care. Additionally, children often suffer long-term psychological trauma if they are present during the raid and witness the violence. 

The security service’s aggressive actions often provoke bystanders who gather at the scene to support their neighbors. In April 2017, for example, the security services instigated a conflict with local residents in Bakhchysarai during a search and responded by firing live rounds into the air. These situations, provoked by the security services, can easily lead to large-scale violence.

Illegal searches, detentions, and interrogations combined with violations of Crimeans’ freedom of speech constitute only a small part of Russia’s systematic breach of human rights in occupied Crimea. More detailed information, including concrete data on cases, can be found in the second edition of the “Encyclopedia of Repression in Crimea Since the Beginning of the Russian Occupation.”

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