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On Crimea

Article by Anton Nemlyuk

September 26, 2019

On Crimea

At the end of March 2019, 20 people were detained in Crimea on one day, with 23 people arrested in total.[1] These were Crimean Muslims accused of participating in the Islamic party Hizb ut-Tahrir, recognised as a terrorist group in Russia since 2003. The next dayin the Russian town of Rostov three more Crimean Muslims, who were not found during searches the day before, were detained on the same charge. A couple of weeks later, Raim Ayvazov was detained at the border. He was about to leave Crimea, going to the Ukrainian city of Kherson in order to get documents. The Federal Security Service officers took him to a field near the border, put him on his knees and began to shoot a gun close to his head, forcing him to confess and to incriminate the other detainees. He agreed of course, although he later recanted and told the court about the imitation of the shooting, which he was subjected to by the Russian secret services. Before telling what had happened to him in public, Raim Aivazov, though very afraid, was able to transmit the information to his lawyer Maria Eismont. She, in turn, handed the story over to Crimean human rights activists, who told it to the journalists including me, the author of this essay. This scheme, a cooperation between the lawyer, the human rights activist and the journalist, is the most effective one from the point of view of both journalism and human rights protection. As experience shows it is most effective from the point of view of protection of persons prosecuted unlawfully for political or other reasons. Before Eismont, Ayvazov had a lawyer appointed by the state, who intimidated him and persuaded to ‘admit’ his guilt. If Eismont had not listened to him, then the information about what he had been subjected to would not have appeared at all. The remand hearing concerning Aivazov, like almost all political proceedings in Crimea, was held behind closed doors, and it was impossible for journalists, observers, and even relatives to get in the court room. If the activists whom the lawyer had told about Ayvazov’s ‘shooting’, had not contacted the journalists, this information would have remained only on social networks and would not have spread beyond them, causing a reaction from the supervisory authorities.

My journalistic activities in Crimea began in the summer of 2016. Since then I have spent almost all of my time on the peninsula: one month on a business trip, the next on various trips and working with material, then returning back to Crimea again, covering almost all political trials that are held there of Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian activists. This experience forms the basis of the ideas in this essay about the most effective interaction with lawyers and human rights activists in Crimea.

In the spring of 2015, when mass detentions of Crimean Tatars and politically motivated abductions of activists became a reality brought by the Russian authorities, the human rights organisation ‘Crimean Solidarity’ was formed on the peninsula and still operates successfully there. It united lawyers, relatives of political prisoners and those activists who engaged in providing legal assistance to prisoners, helping families and children left without fathers because of an arrest or an abduction. Activists carry out the information gathering work as well – they cover court hearings, searches, detentions, and generally those activities conducted by Russian security forces that are related to violation of human rights on the peninsula. Several representatives of the Ukrainian Cultural Center, the remnants of Ukrainian society in Crimea, who are subjected to constant persecution, take part in the monthly meetings of Solidarity, but all the activists are Crimean Tatars, Muslims. They have been persecuted since the beginning of 2017, not only for their political disloyalty to the Russian authorities (as was the case of ‘February 26’, when participants of the February 26 rally, 2014, were persecuted; they had demanded the local parliament deputies to retain Crimea as a part of Ukraine), and not only for disobeying the Crimean Muftiat, which is the Muslim governing body that is fully controlled by the Russian security services, but, above all, for their civil and human rights activities. ‘Solidarity’ rather quickly formed a structure in which there are groups of ‘streamers,’ that is, ‘civil journalists’ who cover the persecution by Russian authorities in social networks; a group of ‘civil defense counsels’, lawyers who had acted as defense counsels in court cases with non-criminal charges, for example, because of protest pickets; and a separate group was engaged in providing everything the prisoners needed. This final group helped families and, above all, children, many of whom needed psychological support after having experienced a search, an arrest at home and the trials of their fathers. 18 people out of the 24 detainees, accused of participating in Hizb ut-Tahrir mentioned at the beginning of this essay, are activists of ‘Crimean Solidarity’.

Generally speaking, ‘Crimean Solidarity’ took over the functions of a human rights community on the peninsula. Representatives of international human rights organisations can not work legally on the peninsula because Russia has made their presence in Crimea dependent on the actual recognition of the annexation. “Please come to work in Crimea, if you want to,” Russia says, for example, to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Observer Mission, which has a mandate to monitor Crimea, but which is based in Odessa. “However you must get a permission from us, because this is our territory.”[2] It is obvious that human rights organisations cannot do that. However, in 2015, the Turkish human rights mission visited Crimea and published a report after the visit, where it severely criticised the actions of the Russian authorities and security forces, specifically relating to human rights violations including politically motivated prosecutions, abductions of activists, infringement of the Crimean Tatar language in education and so on.[3] Over the past year, two joint human rights teams were able to work in Crimea. They met with the families of political prisoners and activists of ‘Crimean Solidarity’, but they entered the peninsula while preserving their secrecy, which of course limited their activities. Likewise, Ukrainian human rights activists rarely work in Crimea, entering under the guise of tourists. But in this case, they are often surveilled by Federal Security Service (FSB) officers, that keep them under observation and wiretap their phones. The last time an employee of a Ukrainian human rights organisation (the author omits the names of the organisation and the employee for security purposes) had worked in Crimea and was traveling back to mainland Ukraine, an FSB Border Guard officer warned her directly: “Today we release you, but if you come again, you will get problems due to unauthorised activities of a foreign organisation.”[4] All Ukrainian human rights organisations are forced to follow what is happening in Crimea from Kyiv, receiving information from the activists from ‘Crimean Solidarity’, a small number of journalists and local lawyers. In turn, they can only covertly help activists and lawyers, constantly endangering those whom they are helping. Russia has developed a large law-enforcement practice of persecution for contacts with ‘undesirable organisations’ and ‘foreign agents’.

At the same time, Russian human rights organisations are not very eager to work in Crimea. A reaction from Ukrainian colleagues almost always follows activities carried out by Russian human rights defenders on the peninsula, reminding them that Crimea is part of Ukraine, even if annexed by Russia at present, and that Russian organisations should appear there only with the sanction of Ukraine. There are not many Russian human rights activists, including those who believe the same, who are willing to engage in a political scandal. A few Russian human rights activists, who systematically work in Crimea, need in addition to get a work permit from the Ukrainian authorities each time they go to the peninsula. They must submit an application to the Foreign Ministry, carry the documentation package personally to the migration service, come personally and get a special permit, and then travel exclusively through Ukrainian border posts on the isthmus that connects Crimea with the Kherson region. Usually, in order to obtain such a permit, it is necessary to wait between three days to a week. Despite all attempts to facilitate the procedure, for example, to be able to get permission remotely, without coming to Kyiv personally, the situation has not changed for the past five years. The direct arrival of Russian human rights defenders by plane from Moscow or across a bridge connecting Crimea and Russia, most often does not cause official Kyiv to react, even though it violates Ukrainian border legislation. There is however no guarantee that Ukraine will not remember these violations in the future. Few are willing to risk relationships with Ukrainian colleagues and authorities. Despite constant evidence of torture used by FSB officers, the ‘Committee against Torture’, for example, headed by Igor Kalyapin, does not work in Crimea. The same Russian human rights activists who have been working here since 2014 are in fact, still working on the peninsula; no new ones have appeared on the scene during the last five years.

The community of lawyers in Crimea remains in a similar situation. Ukrainian lawyers cannot work on the peninsula at all, and they can only provide support to the Crimeans who complain to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), or in Ukraine itself, if required. They cannot defend clients in Crimean or Russian courts. Their interaction with Ukrainian law enforcement agencies, which initiate cases against Russian secret service officers and law enforcement agencies in Crimea, turns them into enemies of the Russian authorities on the peninsula. In 2016, Russian border guards barred Ukrainian lawyer Yevgenia Zakraska from entering Crimea until the end of 2020.

Inside Crimea there has developed a community of lawyers working on political judicial processes primarily relating to Crimean Tatar activists, the most heavily prosecuted group. These lawyers are either Ukrainian, who lived in Crimea in 2014 and have undergone a re-certification, or those who have received that status during the past five years. From the point of view of their work, they are considered in the same way as those Russian lawyers who come to Crimea from Russia. Nikolay Polozov, who first defended Nadezhda Savchenko, and then the Mejlis deputy chairman (the Crimean Tatar People´s self-government body, forbidden by Russia) Akhtem Chiygoz in the ‘February 26’ case, is one example.

Since 2014, the legal association ‘Agora’ has been working in political judicial processes in Crimea. Agora is probably the most well-known Russian association, with the biggest counsel stories. Dmitry Dinze, who was then part of Agora, defended the Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov, while Svetlana Sidorkina defended the anarchist Alexander Kolchenko. However, the lawyers of Agora did not live in Crimea until 2016. The lawyer Alexey Ladin moved to the peninsula later, he joined Agora and became their representative in Crimea. The activities of Agora on the peninsula are also important, because the association pays great attention to information support in relation to their affairs and to cooperation with journalists. However, Russian lawyers, as well as human rights activists, have faced a reaction from Ukraine due to the fact that they had entered Ukrainian Crimea.

As Pavel Chikov, head of Agora explained it was a little unexpected: you think you are trying to bring good things to people, and then you get criticised by your colleagues. The logic is clear: by participating in the protection of these people, you legitimise annexation, but we acted out of the considerations that there is a person, he has problems, respectively, he needs help. Everything else is secondary.[5]

In the spring of 2016, seven journalists in Crimea were searched on the same day. They were all witnesses in the case of their colleague Nikolay Semyona, who was accused by Russian authorities of separatism for an article published on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, where he spoke positively about the energy blockade of Crimea.[6] The blockade had been organised by Ukrainian nationalists and Crimean Tatars in the autumn of 2015. Mass searches forced some journalists to leave Crimea and follow their colleagues, who had mostly left earlier, while others abandoned journalism. According to lawyer Alexander Popkov “with the help of the Semyona case, the Russian authorities crushed the network of independent journalists on the peninsula”.[7] Even earlier, the editorial offices of the Crimean Tatar TV channel ATR, the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty project ‘Crimea Realia’, the Black Sea TV Company and other independent journalistic groups were forced to flee Crimea. After that, independent correspondents in Crimea worked unsystematically, except for the time when the journalist from the Russian ‘Novaya Gazeta’, Ivan Zhilin, lived in Sevastopol. In order to get to Crimea without violating Ukrainian border legislation, foreign journalists had to go through the same procedure as human rights activists. However they had to submit an application to the Ukrainian Ministry of Information and Press and not to the Foreign Ministry. This procedure takes up to a week, so the journalist first has to spend that time in Ukraine, then he must go across the isthmus, being subjected to interrogations and additional verifications, first by Ukrainian secret services, then by the Russian ones. When he leaves the peninsula, everything happens in the reverse order, but the interrogation by the FSB officers is more often quite harsh, especially if the journalist has met with activists, lawyers and families of political prisoners. FSB officers check the correspondents´ equipment and phones, that they download information from. They take fingerprints and interrogate about all of their contacts on the peninsula. These obvious risks, as well as the fact that Crimea has gradually, over the past five years, left the media agenda, lead to the fact that foreign journalists travel to the peninsula less and less frequently. From a Ukrainian perspective Russian independent journalists do not from other foreign ones, but in order to not to get involved in the procedure of obtaining permits and passing the administrative border, they travel from Russia directly, hiding under a pseudonym. There just are no independent journalists among the Crimean media, that are controlled by Russian authorities and secret services.

The challenges that human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists in Crimea are facing, also have determined the nature of their cooperation. First-hand information about the events taking place is  most often obtained by lawyers from their clients and their clients´ families. They are called upon for help during searches and detentions. They transmit this information to the activists of ‘Crimean Solidarity’ and human rights activists, who disseminate it on social networks and transmit it to professional journalists. And it does not really matter where these journalists are located – in Crimea, on mainland Ukraine or in Russia. Much more important is the personal confidence in the media and journalists, with whom lawyers and human rights activists work. Such an arrangement gives rise to problems for all of its participants.

A journalist, that receives information from activists or human rights defenders, cannot actually check it immediately if he is not in Crimea. He is forced to rely on the information as trustworthy and he can only verify it later, either through judicial documents or on the spot through contact with the prisoners´ relatives. At the same time, it is clear that human rights activists and, even more so, lawyers, have their own goals, namely to protect the persecuted person. Based on that, a lawyer may not share all information, activists may not want to disseminate facts that can harm a person. A journalist has a goal to inform the public, but it is impossible to do so if providing information only partially. If the information is socially significant, it has to be complete. In 2018, one of the Crimean Tatars (the name is kept out for security purposes) was arrested by Russian secret services, accused of participation in the Crimean Tatar volunteer troop named after Noman Chelebedzhikhan. That troop operates in the area of ​​the administrative border with Crimea, and Russia qualifies participation in it as participation in an illegal armed formation. Already in custody he managed to get in touch with activists, who then found me, so that I could cover his case and his trial. I rechecked his story with the leader of the troop, who confirmed that the Crimean Tatar really had wanted to join the troop, but was not accepted because of a criminal prosecution for robbery, from which he had to flee from Crimea. When the text was ready, the lawyer and his client suddenly changed their position, stating in court that he had never wanted to join the troop and had not even left the peninsula. And it was precisely this position that they had wanted to see reflected in the reporting. It was clear that the publication of the article could harm the defense strategy of the Crimean Tatar in court, but it was also impossible to publish deliberately false information. This apparent contradiction between the work of a journalist and a lawyer or human rights activist occurs quite often while working on issues of human rights violations and political persecution.

The Crimean Tatar Eden Bekirov is now kept in a detention facility in Simferopol, accused of illegal handling of explosives and ammunition. He has one leg and a first-degree disability, as well as a severe form of diabetes. His health has been deteriorating since he was arrested in the December 2018, but each time a remand hearing concerning the extension of his custody for the investigation period, is approaching, the defense counsel informs that he is dying in custody. This fact is impossible to check. Both human rights activists, most journalists and Ukrainian media use it very actively, referring to the defense counsel, but the reliability of this information is however not confirmed by anything else than the lawyer´s words. For him it is of course beneficial for the defense of Bekirov.

Nevertheless, an effective interaction between lawyers, human rights defenders, activists and journalists has developed in Crimea. After many years of working in Crimea, and in fact, no new journalists or human rights activists have appeared on the scene during the last five years, all participants of this system have developed confidence in each other. The main question that Russian secret services ask me when I cross the administrative border is: “Who provided you with information? Where did you get the documents for your article? Whom of the lawyers were you in contact with?” It is clear that the effectiveness of our interaction with lawyers depends on our silence in response to that question. The objectivity and completeness of the articles depends on how effective that interaction is. This will, in turn, affect how effectively the human rights defenders will be able to use those texts for advocacy. All these interactions are based on trust – there are risks for any of the participants in this scheme. A lawyer risks when he delivers documents and information from a classified case to journalists and human rights activists. A journalist risks responsibility for disclosing this information if he refuses to name his source. In addition he also risks his own authority because he often cannot verify the information. The human rights activist can neither check this information and risks using materials from a journalist for advocacy purposes and, for example, for writing monitoring reports. It is quite possible that this effective scheme would not have developed in Crimea if the brunt of political persecution had not fallen on the mono-ethnic community of the Crimean Tatars. They have both the experience from the national movement following the deportation in 1944, and the religious solidarity of an Islamic community. Lawyers working on political affairs, and human rights activists from ‘Crimean Solidarity’ appeared first among the Crimean Tatars. They were only subsequently joined by professional journalists.

Author’s recommendations:

  • To create an informal association of journalists, who focus on religious and political persecutions, lawyers and human rights defenders on the basis of a Russian human rights organisation (for example, ‘Memorial’) or an international organisation. Such an association would be able to provide a base of experts and lawyers for certain cases. This will, in turn, provide lawyers and human rights defenders with an opportunity to address journalists directly. It will also give them an idea of whom they can trust in relation to cooperation.
  • To seek from Ukraine a simplification of the entry procedure to Crimea for journalists, human rights activists and Russian lawyers. Ideally, to be able to apply for and receive permission remotely, as well as to be able to enter Crimea not through mainland Ukraine, without violating the border legislation.

Author’s bio: Anton Nemlyuk is a Russian historian and journalist. He graduated from Saratov State University (Russia). Until 2012 he worked as a teacher, and thereafter, as a journalist. Since 2016 Anton has been working in Crimea, covering human rights violations, also as a court reporter.

[1] Human Rights Watch,  Escalating Pressure on Crimean Tatars, April 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/04/02/ukraine-escalating-pressure-crimean-tatars

[2] Victor Lyashchenko, In Crimea, they said that the UN mission could come, but constantly refused, RIA Novosti, September 2017, https://ria.ru/20170927/1505682403.html

[3] TRT Russian, Turkish delegation released a report on human rights in Crimea, June 2015,  https://www.trt.net.tr/russian/iz-rossiiskogo-i-turietskogo-mira/2015/06/15/turietskaia-dielieghatsiia-obnarodovala-doklad-o-pravakh-chielovieka-v-krymu-304805

[4] Based on Anton’s own interview – conversations with the representative from Ukrainian organisation

[5] Anton Naumluk, Dark times in the Crimea. Agora Protects Dissenters, Svoboda, February 2019, https://www.svoboda.org/a/29760481.html

[6] Valentin Gonchar, The blockade is a necessary first step towards the liberation of Crimea, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, https://ru.krymr.com/a/27240750.html

[7] Popkov mentioned it at the interview to the author, but also repeated this to Novaya Gazeta, Collapse networks, July 2016, https://www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2016/07/11/69229-svorachivayte-seti

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