Few human rights lawyers are brave enough to work in Crimea these days. A recent letter from Russia’s Ministry of Justice to Crimean defense lawyer Emil Kurbedinov threatening his profession is yet another stark reminder that Russian authorities intend to keep it that way.
Last month, Kurbedinov was arrested on charges of “public distribution of extremist materials” and sentenced to five days in jail for a 2013 social media post about a meeting in Crimea of supporters of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist political movement opposed to violence. Hizb ut-Tahrir is banned in Russia as a terrorist organization but operates legally in Ukraine. Kurbedinov had previously spent ten days in jail in 2017 after the court sentenced him on the same charges and for the very same post, but made on a different social media site.
Shortly after his release on December 25, Russia’s Justice Ministry sent Kurbedinov and the Crimean Bar Association letters requesting that Kurbedinov be expelled from the bar association by March 1 because of alleged involvement in “extremist activities.”
Kurbedinov is one of the association’s founders, and the letters are clearly meant to harass and intimidate him by creating the threat of disbarment from working as a defense lawyer, which could well become the next step.
Since Russia’s occupation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, authorities and their proxies there have engaged in relentless persecution of Crimean Tatars and others critical of Russia’s actions in Crimea, subjecting them to harassment, threats, intrusive and unlawful searches of their homes, physical attacks, and enforced disappearances, as well as baseless terrorism-related prosecutions.
Kurbedinov is Crimea’s leading defense lawyer working on these politically motivated cases, so it is little wonder that the authorities have come after him.
The human rights situation in Crimea has been growing increasingly worse, but people outside Crimea rarely hear about it. Comprehensive human rights monitoring is nearly impossible there. Standing up for human rights defenders like Kurbedinov is therefore more important than ever.