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(Kyiv) – Russian authorities have detained two human rights lawyers who represent prominent Crimean Tatar leaders, Human Rights Watch said today. The lawyers’ clients are being prosecuted on politically motivated charges in retaliation for their activism.

Emil Kurbedinov, who was detained on January 26, 2017, and Nikolai Polozov, detained on January 25, represent Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov, prosecuted on bogus charges related to their vocal and public opposition of Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Chiygoz and Umerov are deputy chairmen of the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar representative body. Crimean Tatars are a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority in Crimea, many of whom have peacefully protested the Russian government policies since it occupied Crimea in February 2014.

“With the detention of lawyers defending Crimean Tatar activists, the Russian authorities are going even further to undermine human rights protections and the rule of law in occupied Crimea,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia division director at Human Rights Watch. “The Russian authorities should stop harassing lawyers and activists and guarantee Crimean Tatars' rights.”

Officials from the Center for Combating Extremism, operating under Russia’s Internal Affairs Ministry, detained Kurbedinov on January 26 in the city of Bakhchysarai, a colleague who was with him told Human Rights Watch. Kurbedinov was on his way to see a client when traffic police stopped his car, claiming they were making a routine check. Anti-extremism officials soon arrived and detained Kurbedinov.

Officials took Kurbedinov to the Simferopol district court, which found him guilty of a misdemeanor for “public distribution of extremist materials” and sentenced him to 10 days in detention. Kurbedninov’s alleged offending act was to repost on social media an article about a 2013 public meeting of supporters of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical Islamist political movement opposed to the use of violence, in Simferopol, Crimea’s capital. Hizb ut-Tahrir is banned in Russia as a terrorist organization.

Law enforcement officials during the search in Emil Kurbedinov’s office, Bakhchysarai, Crimea, January 26, 2017. © 2017 Anton Naumlyik (RFE/RL)

Police also searched Kurbedinov’s home and office and confiscated two laptops and several electronic storage devices. One of Kurbedinov’s lawyers told Human Rights Watch that police denied him entry to Kurbedinov’s apartment for 40 minutes before allowing him to enter.

On January 25, agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service’s (FSB) Crimea Department detained Polozov as he was on his way to represent his client Chiygoz in a hearing. Polozov told Human Rights Watch that six agents approached him outside his hotel in Simferopol, forced him into a van, and drove him to the Simferopol office of the FSB to question him about Umerov’s case. Polozov refused to answer, citing attorney-client privilege. He was allowed to leave two-and-a-half hours later.

Polozov said that officials took him through the back door of the FSB building and made no record of his presence there. They did not allow Polozov’s own lawyer to be present during the attempted questioning. Polozov had just returned from a trip to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, where he publicly presented information about fair trial violations in the Chiygoz and Umerov cases, as well as about pressure on defense lawyers in Crimea.

In September 2016, the Crimea Department of Russia’s Investigative Committee initiated a criminal inquiry into Polozov for allegedly interfering with the activities of a prosecutor, contempt of court, and defamation of a public official. The allegations are linked to a Facebook post in which Polozov called the prosecutor in Chiygoz’s case “small” and “insignificant.” Polozov told Human Rights Watch that he believes the criminal inquiry was retaliation for his work defending Crimean Tatar leaders. The inquiry, briefly suspended in November 2016, remains open.

Chiygoz faces criminal charges related to a public protest during the initial weeks of Russia’s occupation of Crimea. He has been in pretrial detention for 23 months, and his trial is ongoing. Umerov faces charges for “public calls to action aimed at violating Russian territorial integrity,” after giving an interview to a Crimean Tatar television channel in March 2016, in which he criticized Russia’s occupation. He is not in detention, but was forcibly confined to a psychiatric hospital for three weeks in August and September.
Emil Kurbedinov speaking at the Supreme Court of Russia.  © 2017 Anton Naumlyik (RFE/RL)

Russia’s Supreme Court in September declared the Mejlis an “extremist” organization and banned its activities in Russia.

Article 12 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders stipulates that states shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection of human rights defenders against “any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary actions” related to their efforts to protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Since Russia’s occupation of Crimea, Russian and the de facto Crimean authorities have detained, imprisoned, forcibly disappeared, attacked, intimidated or forced into exile many people who peacefully opposed or openly criticized the authorities’ actions and policies. The authorities have also have shut down numerous independent Crimean Tatar media outlets.

“There are very few human rights defense lawyers willing to work in Crimea, and they do so at great risk,” Williamson said. “The intimidation and harassment of Kurbedinov and Polozov is intended to, and will most likely lead to, more lawyers being unwilling to defend anyone facing politically-sensitive prosecutions.”

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