Today, Russia’s Supreme Court confirmed a lower court ruling declaring Mejlis, a Crimean Tatar elected representative body, an extremist organization and banned its activities in Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea. The decision is outrageous but not surprising: Human Rights Watch has documented a steady curtailing of basic freedoms in Crimea since Russian forces began occupying the peninsula in February 2014.
Earlier this year, Crimea’s prosecutor petitioned a court to recognize the actions of Mejlis as extremist. In April, Crimea’s Supreme Court banned Mejlis and declared it an extremist organization.
Russia takes repressive measures against Crimean Tatars because of their persistent and peaceful opposition to Russia’s occupation. Several of the Mejlis’ 33 members have been victims of threats, attacks, and had their homes searched; some are currently facing criminal charges for extremism, separatism, and other trumped-up charges. The former Mejlis chairman, Mustafa Dzhemilev, is now in exile in Kyiv after Russian authorities in Crimea declared him persona non grata, along with another Crimean Tatar leader. Akhtem Chiygoz, a deputy chairman of Mejlis, was detained in January 2015 and accused of organizing “mass disturbances.” He has been in pretrial detention since then, and his trial is ongoing. Another Mejlis deputy chairman, Ilmi Umerov, is facing “separatist” charges for an interview in which he said that Crimea should be returned to Ukraine. He was forced to undergo a prolonged psychiatric evaluation, which is shocking enough, and compelled to do so while in poor physical health. On September 28, authorities fined him for participating in a meeting of Mejlis members. The list goes on.
Last week, I met with a Mejlis member who was forced to leave Crimea for Kyiv or face criminal charges of extremism and separatism. He told me he had little faith in the Russian justice system. He told me about threats and intimidation he and his family faced following Russia’s occupation of Crimea. His biggest concern was not about the Supreme Court banning the Mejlis, but about what would follow. He feared more criminal cases against his colleagues and friends, more repression, and more fear to speak one’s mind.
Russian authorities bear direct responsibility for the sharp deterioration in protection for fundamental rights in Crimea. They can and should immediately cease the current persecution of Crimean Tatars.