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6 Years of Occupation: Demographic Changes and Violations of Freedom of Religion and Self-Determination

March 11, 2020 10:45 0 1033
Six years of occupation have resulted in normal living conditions for only those in Crimea who are loyal to Russia. Crimean Tatars living in their homeland, religious organizations outside of Russian control, and human rights defenders unmask the utopian picture of happy life on the peninsula so painstakingly painted by Russian propaganda. 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 violated Crimeans’ right to self-determination and freedom of religion as well as deliberately changed the demographics of the region in the six years since the occupation began.

Occupation Doesn’t Need Civil Activists

Once the occupation began, the majority of human rights groups left Crimea and, in most cases, under duress.

The occupying authorities have threatened and kidnapped coordinators and members of civil society groups; there have been several documented cases of persons being deported from Crimea; and multiple organizations have been eliminated or severely fined. As with news outlets, all the civil society groups that wished to continue their activity on the peninsula were forced to re-register. Over the course of 2014, only 396 civil society organizations were able to re-register. Russia then created another obstacle for their work by passing laws on “Undesired Organizations” and so-called “Foreign Agents.” These laws forced several organizations to reconsider re-registration and caused others to refuse international funding. It's worth mentioning that Ukrainian funding is considered foreign because Russian law is in effect in occupied Crimea. Most of the civil society initiatives aimed at representing political prisoners and prosecuted persons that began their activity after the occupation started refused to register or receive any sort of official status. They made this decision in the hopes of avoiding repressive Russian laws and pressure from the authorities. These groups include Crimean Solidarity, the Crimea Contact Group, and Crimean Idea.

Demographic Changes

Since the occupation began, Russia has enacted policies aimed at altering the demographic makeup of Crimea. The goal is simple: squash dissent in the region. These policies have included intentionally creating conditions that make it impossible for targeted persons to live in Crimea, prohibitions on entering the region, and deportation. 

Politically motivated prosecutions, interrogations, searches, abductions, and unofficial threats have forced many journalists, civil society activists, and political leaders to flee Crimea. Furthermore, the occupying authorities regularly transfer Ukrainian political prisoners from occupied Crimea to Russia. According to unofficial estimates, no less than 60,000 people have fled Crimea since the occupation began 6 years ago. In their place, the authorities have actively resettled people from Russia to Crimea. In the first three years of the occupation, more than 200,000 people were resettled from Russia to Crimea. Russian citizens were incentivized to move to Crimea by the introduction of economic benefits, the availability of affordable accommodation, and other attractive conditions. Additionally, the Russian government passed a law creating a 25-year Free Economic Zone in Crimea and Sevastopol, further incentivizing profitable economic activity. In addition to civilians, the Russian government has actively resettled government officials and military service members onto the peninsula. Thus, Russia’s deliberate actions during its occupation violate the norms of international humanitarian law. These violations affect all Crimeans without exception and are aimed at preventing de-occupation by replacing Ukrainian citizens with Russian citizens. These actions by Russia, the aggressor state, qualify as war crimes.

Freedom of Religion

As part of a broader policy of suppressing civil liberties, the occupying Russian authorities particularly target freedom of thought, conscience, and religion in Crimea. The occupying authorities use legislation to suppress any religious organization that is not under their control. As of January 2014, before the occupation began, there were 2,220 religious organizations of which 1,546 were registered. By June 30, 2018, the number of registered religious organizations in Crimea and Sevastopol had dropped to 853. According to Russian law, any unregistered religious organization’s activities are prohibited. Legal pressure from the occupying authorities occurs on two levels. On the first level, the authorities co-opt control of religious structures. This happened with the Clerical Board of Crimea’s Muslims (Духовным управлением мусульман Крыма or ДУМК) whose leadership re-registered in accordance with Russian law. After its re-registration, the organization came under the control of the Russian occupying authorities. On the second level, religious organizations are determined to be extremist and subjected to repression. Russian law has designated 60 organizations as extremist, 25 of which are religious. Three of the prohibited organizations have branches in Crimea, including Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tablighi Jamaat, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Ukrainian law, on the other hand, does not discriminate against these organizations.

Since the occupation began, these organizations have faced constant pressure in the form of arrests, illegal detentions, and searches. In the fall of 2018, the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses increased. Another one of the largest instances of searches, detentions, and criminal proceedings became known as the “Hizb ut-Tahrir Case.” As of February 2020, there are 63 political prisoners connected with the case and 20 of them have been given prison sentences from 7-10 years. In most instances, the occupying authorities are using Russian law as a means to combat social activism.   

The authorities also use extralegal methods to suppress freedom of religion by conducting searches, detentions, and beating; exerting administrative pressure; and seizing religious buildings. The de-facto authorities are particularly targeting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP), Greek Catholic, Roman Catholic, and Protestant communities. Due to the pressure, many religious figures have left Crimea, adversely affecting the communities they serve. As a result, many worshipers stopped attending religious gatherings out of fear.

Right to Self-Determination 

Russia also violates international law by denying locals their right to self-determination, which is both a jus cogens (peremptory) norm and fundamental principle of international law.

The violation of Crimea Tatars’ right to self-determination takes three forms: banning the Crimean Tatar people’s representative bodies and prosecuting their representatives, eliminating independent Crimean Tatar news outlets, and limiting the use of the Crimean Tatar language.

The ban on the Mejlis, which is the primary representative body of the Crimean Tatar people, came into effect in April 2016 after the de facto Supreme Court of Crimea ruled that the Mejlis are an extremist organization.

The court accepted the following illegal legal arguments to “prove” that the Mejlis engaged in extremist activities:

  • Events in support of maintaining Ukraine’s territorial integrity hosted by the Mejlis
  • A meeting between the leader of the Crimean Tatar people, Mustafa Dzhemilev, and the Crimean Tatar community in Armyansk
  • Participation in the “civilian blockade of Crimea” by the Mejlis
  • Announcements by members of the Mejlis calling for the de-occupation of Crimea and its return to Ukrainian control

The ban on the Mejlis’ activities led to the suppression of Crimean Tatars’ civil, political, and cultural rights. The de facto court’s ruling meant that nearly 2,500 representatives from national and local bodies of the Mejlis could face 8-year prison sentences for membership in the “extremist” organization. The European Parliament reacted to the ban on the Mejlis by demanding that it be repealed. The parliament characterized the ban as a deliberate attempt to persecute the Crimean Tatar people and force them to flee Crimea. On April 19, 2017, the International Court of Justice at the UN ruled that Russia must cease limiting the Crimean Tatar people’s right to representative bodies as part of the case on the Application of the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism and of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Ukraine v. Russian Federation)

A characteristic feature of the pressure exerted on members of Mejlis is that the prosecutions are not often based on their activities with the Mejlis. Instead, the prosecutions rely on fabricated evidence alleging that they shelter extremists, engage in sabotage or fraud, store drugs or weapons, and other similar accusations. Fabricated cases were brought against Refat Chubarov (Speaker of the Mejlis), Akhmet Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov (two of Chubarov’s three deputies), and Mustafa Dzhemilev (leader of the Crimean Tatar people). All of them are prohibited from returning to Crimea.

Hundreds of Crimean Tatars face illegal criminal and civil prosecution only because of their ethnicity and political opinions. These prosecutions are accompanied by glaring procedural violations as well as breaches of Russia’s obligations per the European Convention on Human Rights. These breaches include the right to liberty and security, the right to a fair trial, and the prohibition on discrimination. In many cases, persons face criminal prosecution for actions taken before the occupation began, therefore occurring before Russian law came into effect in Crimea.

The occupying Russian authorities also repress Crimean Tatars by limiting their property rights.

Since 2014, there have been attacks on Crimean Tatar representative bodies across the entire peninsula by paramilitary groups. As a rule, the consequences of the attacks are the same: damage to property and equipment, replacing Ukrainian flags with “Crimean” flags, and physical assaults on employees and officials. In September 2014, the de-facto Central Regional Court of Simferopol banned the volunteer organization Crimea Foundation (the president of which is Mustafa Dzhemilev) from using their own property, including the building where they have housed the central office of the Mejlis for 15 years.

After the ban on the Mejlis in April 2016, the occupying authorities in Crimea began to seize the Mejlis’ facilities. One instance of this practice occurred in Simferopol where the authorities seized the regional Mejlis office. It is important to note that the occupying authorities’ repression of the Mejlis and its representatives also affects the entire Crimean Tatar social welfare structure that they help support. This includes, for example, the aforementioned Crimea Foundation, League of Crimean Tatar Women, and others.

Additionally, the Russian authorities exert pressure on Crimea Tatar institutions by targeting news outlets. Most Crimean Tatar news outlets were forced to cease their operations in Crimea because it was impossible to re-register after the occupation began. As a result, the only Crimean Tatar channel in the world, ATR, was forced to stop its official broadcasts in April 2015. The same fate befell Crimean Tatar newspapers, journals, and news agencies. The authorities exert separate pressure on the employees and owners of news outlets. Specifically, these employees and owners have faced the following pressure:

  • Meetings at the FSB and Prosecutor’s Office where the authorities warn them about the prohibition on extremist content
  • Bans on entering the territory of Crimea
  • Searches
  • Civil charges
  • Detentions

Language, one of the principal expressions of self-determination, also faces significant suppression. The authorities have stopped Crimean Tatar language lessons from being held at preschools and removed “Crimean Tatar Language and Literature” from the curriculum in schools, causing a significant reduction in Crimean Tatar language instruction. As a result, the Crimean Tatar language can only be studied outside of school hours. Furthermore, teachers cannot include teaching Crimean Tatar as part of their official experience toward earning their pension.

There has also been a noticeable decline in Crimean Tatar language instruction at the universities as more than 300 hours of teaching have been removed from the curriculum. Currently, Crimean Tatar is only adequately taught to students studying linguistics while others only receive a single or half course. As a consequence of the occupying authorities’ language policy, fewer people recognize Crimean Tatar as their native language. According to sociological polling, the percentage of Crimeans that considered Crimean Tatar to be their native language fell from 9.4% in 2008 to 8.7% in 2017.

The instances of repression described above are just a small sample of the occupying Russian authorities’ systemic human rights violations in 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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