On 29 September 2016, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation predictablyruledin favor ofthe“legality” of the ban on the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People in occupied Crimea. In fact, it upheld the ruling of the so-called Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea dated 26 April 2016 that outlawedthe Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People as an “extremist organization” and banned its activities on the whole territory of the Russian Federation. On 18 April 2016, the Russian Justice Ministryadded the Mejlis to the list of civil and religious organizations, whose activity is suspended due to extremism, based on the decision of the de facto Crimean Prosecutor General as of 12 April. Hence, the Mejlis was put on the “List of Not-for-Profit OrganizationsDissolved or Suspended Pursuant to the Requirements of the Federal Law “On Combating Extremist Activity”.
According to the media, the Russian Prosecutor said during the trial that main reason for the ban on the Mejlis is the non-recognition by its leaders of Crimea’s annexation by Russia, and the efforts to return the peninsula to Ukraine.
It is revealing that in the Russian case file, the Mejlis is referred to as a public organization, which contradicts the reality because it is a representative and self-governing body, elected at the general meeting of Crimean Tatars.
An appeal filed by the representative and self-governing body of the Crimean Tatar people was dismissed, which offers an opportunity to challenge the ruling of the Russian Supreme Court at the European Court of Human Rights.
The Supreme Court ruling was quite predictable as lawyers and experts pointed out that the pressure on Crimean Tatar representative structures could increase after 29 September. A couple of days before, the Mejlis urged Crimean Tatars to boycott elections to the Russian State Duma, which resulted in their low turnout. In some places where Crimean Tatar live in compact groups, the turnout was less than 9%, notwithstanding the pressure from Russian authorities.
Russian authorities deliberately tried to split Crimean Tatar self-governing bodies by setting up the pro-Russian movement Kyrym, which however lacked popular support. They initiated administrative and criminal proceedings against dozens of Crimean Tatars on trumped up charges, including “extremism”. 14 Crimean Tatars were arrested on political grounds. A telling example is the high-profile case of Ilmi Umerov who was placed in a mental hospital for a forced psychiatric examination.
Hence, Russia is trying to cultivate loyalty of Crimean Tatars and simultaneously radicalize them according to the North Caucasian scenario.
The ruling of the Russian Supreme Court has given the green light to law-enforcement agencies to increase pressure on Mejlis members and Crimean Tatars in general. The system of Crimean Tatars’ self-government on the peninsula is quite ramified, with some 3,000 people being members of mejlises at a variety of levels.
With the entry into force of the Russian Supreme Court ruling, any representative of Crimean Tatar national self-governing bodies could face a 10-year prison term for alleged “participation in an extremist organization.” In the worst case scenario, Mejlis members could be new “political hostages” of Russia.
The issue of “extremism” is more and more on the agenda, which is manifested not only in prosecution of and criminal cases against those disloyal to occupation authorities. Representatives of the Russian Interior Ministry hold numerous seminars with the media in Crimea, and conduct classes in secondary schools, teaching how to “counter extremism” because “all state and public institutions, including local self-government bodies, have to take part in the prevention of extremism”.
Six Mejlis members were summoned to the Crimean Interior Ministry’s Anti-Extremism Center. Administrative reports were drawn up for the participation in the “prohibited meetings.” Russian law-enforcers accused them of “organizing activities of an officially suspended public or religious organization.” Earlier, fines were imposed on two more Mejlis members for their participation in the meetings of this Crimean Tatar self-governing body. In view of the above, it is possible to expect that authorities will continue the intimidation campaign and increase pressure on the Mejlis and its members.
Incidentally, the trials of Mejlis members were carried out last week, with money penalties having already been imposed on Ali Khamzin, Ilmi Umerov, and Sadykh Tabakh. The cases against Emine Avamileva, Mustafa Maushev, and other Mejlis members are also being “examined.” What is more, the court turned down their request that sessions be conducted in the Crimean Tatar language.
There has been a negative international response to the Russian Supreme Court ruling. Specifically, the U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner claimed that the United States does not recognize the legitimacy of the ruling to ban the Mejlis as an extremist organization. “We call on Russia to cease immediately the unacceptable practices of arbitrary arrests, politically motivated prosecutions, and restrictions on the rights and freedoms of Crimean Tatars,” Toner said in a statement.
The ban on the Mejlis in occupied Crimea, imposed by the Russian Supreme Court, illustrates the collective punishment of Crimean Tatars, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgiçit stated.
The European External Action Service called the Russian Supreme Court ruling a “serious attack on the rights of Crimean Tatars” and urged Russia to “fully safeguard their rights in compliance with international law.” This statement correlates with the two recent European Parliament resolutions. On 4February 2016, the European Parliamentpassed a resolution on the human rights situation in Crimea, in particular of the Crimean Tatars. It read that individuals who refused to assume Russian citizenship after the annexation experience discrimination, and that Crimean Tatars, as an indigenous people of Crimea, have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social, and cultural institutions. In the second resolution as of 12May 2016, the European Parliament strongly condemned the decision of the so-called Supreme Court of Crimea to ban the Mejlis, demandedits immediate reversal, and labeled the court verdict as “systematic and targeted persecution of Crimean Tatars, a politically motivated action aimed at further intimidating the legitimate representatives of the Tatar community.”
On 29 September 2016, the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the ban on the Mejlis the continuation of Stalin’s policy. In its statement, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry considered the decision to suspend the activities of the Mejlis a “manifestation of racial discrimination, an expected step, totally consistent with Kremlin’s current policy of repression aimed at fighting against democracy and freedom and turning the occupied peninsula into a “grey zone” of terror and lawlessness”. The Ministry called on international partners to more actively defend human rights in occupied Crimea,and ensure the unimpeded access to the peninsula for main conventional and monitoring mechanisms of international human rights organizations to continuously monitor the human rights situation.
Ukrainesaid that it will prove in courts the illegitimacy of all Russia’s actions for the temporary occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, including the decision to label the Mejlis as an extremist organization and ban its activities.
The ban,imposed on the Mejlis by the Russian Federation, is not just a ban on a “nonprofit organization”. The Mejlis is a self-governing body of the Crimean Tatar people. Hence, it is not enough to speak of a violation of the right to freedom of association – it is a violation of the right to representation and self-government,established by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as of 13September 2007, and ILO conventions. Moreover, Crimean Tatars were recognized as an indigenous people in the resolution of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine dated 20 March 2014, under which Ukraine recognizes the Mejlis,the executive body of the Kurultai, and the Kurultai of the Crimean Tatar People as the highest representative bodies of the Crimean Tatar people, and pledges its support to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Commenting on the Russian Supreme Court decision, the Mejlis Chairman Refat Chubarov said that he will sue Russia in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
Russian authorities however decide on their own whether or not to comply with ECHR rulings. In particular, on 4 December 2015, the Russian State Duma passed a law that allows the Constitutional Court “to be guided by the principle of supremacy of the Russian Constitution”, when dealing with ECHR verdicts. This means that Russia does not need to comply with ECHR rulings, if they “violate the fundamental constitutional norms, laid down in the Constitution of the Russian Federation.” There are precedents of decisions ofRussia’s Constitutional Court on the non-compliance with ECHR rulings,e.g. on the granting of voting rights to prisoners.
The international community has a limited ability to react to violations of human rights, and rights of Crimean Tatars in Crimea. It would be a good idea, if the Ukrainian government also raised the question of intensifying sanctions against Russia over Crimea, although it is a difficult task amida never-ending talk in some EU countries about the easing of sanctions and Putin’s “policy of pragmatism”.
It would be a mistake to speak about the easing of the anti-Russian sanction in the current situation in Crimea. One should continuously monitor and assess the human rights situation in the peninsula, and make this processthe subject of constant international attention and political action. Not only political assessments, but also the destinies of concrete people, our compatriots who refused to obey the aggressor,is what stands behind all instances of harassment and infringement of rights.
By Yulia Tyshchenko and Svitlana Gorobchyshyna,
Ukrainian Center for Independent Political Research
11 October 2016