Despite continuing international criticism of Russia’s 2014 takeover of Crimea, the Russian government has intensified its offense against those who seek Crimea’s reunification with Ukraine. Tatars, who make up more than ten percent of the Crimean population, oppose the Russian annexation and have been the target of systemic human rights violations, including searches, arrests, sham trials, and detention. Most Crimean Tatars are Muslims, and they perceive the persecution to be both religious and political. Russia has imposed the legal framework of the Russian Federation on Crimea and has used its criminal code to intimidate, harass, and silence dissent. However, the imposition of Russian Federation law on Crimea should also carry with it the responsibility of the occupying authorities to follow international humanitarian law to which it is obligated.
In February 2014, Russian armed forces seized control of and occupied Crimea and a month later, after a sham referendum that violated the Ukrainian constitution, announced that Crimea had become part of the Russian Federation. A month later, the UN General Assembly affirmed that Crimea was part of the Ukraine. Nonetheless, Russia continued religious and political intimidation of Crimean citizens who opposed its occupation. The Russian occupying authorities ordered all religious groups to register with the Russian government by January 1, 2016, or face losing their legal status. The authorities raided mosques, confiscated literature they deemed “extremist,” and subjected the leadership of Crimean Muslim Tatars to surveillance and intimidation.
In January 2015, Russia’s Supreme Court convicted four Tatars of being members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic group banned in Russia. Russia forcibly transferred the men out of Crimea to a North Caucasus district military court for their trials, in violation of their right to a fair trial. One of the four men, Ruslan Zeytullaev, is on a hunger strike to protest the false accusations of terrorism. In January 2015, Russian authorities arrested Akhtem Chiygoz, deputy leader of the Crimean Mejlis legislature and a vocal critic of the annexation, by applying the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation retroactively to events which predated the occupation. Chiygoz spent fifteen months in pre-trial detention before a thirteen month long sham trial on charges of organizing mass disturbances. In May 2016, Russian authorities banned the Mejlis and prohibited all the group’s activities claiming it was an extremist organization. In June 2016, Russian authorities arrested Ilmi Umerov, deputy chairman of the now-illegal Mejlis, on charges of separatism after he made public statements opposing the annexation. These are not one-off incidents. The U.S. State Department 2016 Human Rights Report on Crimea details the widespread campaign of the Russian authorities to deprive ethnic Crimean Tatars of fundamental civil liberties and to subject them to systematic discrimination. These are clear violations of human rights protected under long-standing international treaties.
Russia is a party and legally obligated to three key international treaties that have codified human rights: 1950 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR); 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); and 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The ECHR specifically protects the rights to freedom of expression, religion, and fair trial. The ICCPR obligates its parties to respect the civil and political rights of individuals, including the right to freedom of speech, religion, assembly, due process, and a fair trial. The ICESCR includes the right of all people to non-discrimination based on religion, politics, national, or social origin.
All three treaties permit human rights restrictions for interests of national security. By using this pretext, Russia has persisted in subjugating the Tatars and repressing those who oppose annexation, despite protests from the U.S. Department of State. In 1997 the Ukraine ratified the ECHR, thus allowing the Ukraine to bring its case before the European Court of Human Rights. In March 2014, the Court called upon both Russia and Ukraine to refrain from taking measures including military action that might violate civilian rights, and this interim measure remains in effect until the case is heard. Normally it takes years for the Court to hear cases, and interim measures indicate that the Court understood the urgency of remediation. While non-compliance with interim measures is a breach of the Convention, until the Court acts, it remains unclear if Russia will be held accountable for human rights violations in Crimea.