Akhtem Chiygoz speaks to then Tatar deputy of the Ukraine's parliament, Mustafa Jemilev. © 2006 Reuters

(Kyiv) – A Russian court in Crimea on September 11, 2017, found a prominent Crimean Tatar leader guilty on charges of organizing “mass riots” following an unfair trial, Human Right Watch said today. The court sentenced the Crimean Tatar leader, Akhtem Chiygoz, to eight years in prison.

Russian authorities should quash the baseless conviction and release him immediately, Human Rights Watch said. The Russian authorities should also stop persecuting the Crimean Tatar community in Crimea, which Russia has occupied since 2014.

“The unjust verdict against Akhtem Chiygoz should be annulled, and he should be freed immediately,” said Tanya Cooper, Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Chiygoz’s prosecution and sentence are a warning to all that prison time is the price for peacefully opposing Russia’s actions in Crimea.”

Russian authorities arrested Chiygoz, 52, deputy chairman of the Crimean Tatar representative body, the Mejlis, in January 2015, and accused him of organizing a demonstration that turned violent. Before his arrest, Chiygoz peacefully opposed Russia’s occupation of Crimea and its mistreatment of the Crimean Tatar community and other critics. He has been in custody since his arrest. The Supreme Court of Crimea convicted and sentenced Chiygoz under article 212, part 1, of the Russian Criminal Code, on charges of organizing mass riots in Simferopol on February 26, 2014. Mejlis leaders had organized a demonstration in front of the Crimean Parliament that day to voice their support for Ukraine’s sovereignty while Russian forces’ stealth takeover of the peninsula was underway.

A group of pro-Russia counter-protesters linked to Sergey Aksyonov, whom Russia subsequently installed as Crimea’s prime minister, appeared on the scene, and the two sides clashed. The prosecution said that two people died and at least 83 were injured.

Russian authorities opened a criminal investigation into the demonstration and clashes, and charged Chiygoz and several other Crimean Tatars with mass rioting. In July 2016, Chiygoz’s case was separated from those against the other defendants.

The court refused to allow Chiygoz to be in the courtroom during his many court hearings, and instead had him participate through videoconferencing. Russian criminal procedure allows courts to make such arrangements in “exceptional” cases, in the interests of the safety of trial participants. Chyigoz’s lawyer, Niklolai Polozov, told Human Rights Watch that the connection was often poor and Chiygoz could not adequately hear or see evidence presented against him. He also could not confidentially and effectively communicate with his defense lawyers, who had to be in the courtroom.

Polozov also said that judges ignored or did not allow the introduction of evidence that would exonerate Chiygoz. For example, the court refused to call a key defense witness, and later did not allow the defense to present the witness’s written testimony.

Of the 213 witnesses and victims in the case, only four gave detailed direct testimony against Chiygoz, three of them secret witnesses, Polozov said. The use of secret witnesses violates the defendant’s rights to fully contest the accusations against him.

One witness testified that Chiygoz had tried to calm down demonstrators and stop the violence. The trial of two other men, Ali Asanov and Mustafa Degermendzhi, in the February 2014 case is ongoing. Both remain under house arrest.

Since Russia’s occupation of Crimea in 2014, Russian and the de-facto Crimean authorities have arbitrarily detained or imprisoned, forcibly disappeared, attacked, intimidated, or forced into exile many people who have peacefully opposed or openly criticized the authorities’ actions and policies.

As an occupying power, Russia is obligated to respect the international law of occupation and international human rights law, including the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. While an occupying power has broader leeway to address security concerns, criminal trials must always meet international due process standards.

Russian authorities in Crimea have targeted Crimean Tatars for their pro-Ukraine position, Human Rights Watch said. Russia’s Supreme Court in September 2016 declared the Mejlis an “extremist” organization and banned its activities in Russia. The authorities shut down numerous independent Crimean Tatar media outlets.

Russian authorities also harassed and detained two human rights lawyers who have represented Crimean Tatar leaders in court in 2017, among them Polozov, Chiygoz’s lawyer. The lawyers told Human Rights Watch that they believed they were targeted for their legal defense work.

Under international law, the Russian Federation is an occupying power in Crimea as it exercises effective control without the consent of the government of Ukraine, and there has been no legally recognized transfer of sovereignty to Russia. A referendum, held without the authorization of the Ukrainian government or any broad-based endorsement by other countries, and Russia’s unilateral actions afterward, cannot be considered to meet the criteria under international law for a transfer of sovereignty that would end the state of belligerent occupation. Human Rights Watch documented a surge of human rights abuses in Crimea after Russia occupied it.

“The Russian authorities blatantly violated Chiygoz’s right to a fair trial,” Cooper said. “It appears that their only intention has been to ensure that he is locked up for a long time.”