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The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. © 2009 Reuters

On January 14, the European Court of Human Rights issued a significant decision accepting Ukraine’s complaint alleging that Russia is responsible for multiple human rights violations in Crimea.

This decision is very important. While the Court did not consider the legality of Russia’s seizure of Crimea, in finding Ukraine’s complaint partially admissible, the Court recognized that Russia has “exercised effective control” over the peninsula since February 2014.

Such recognition of Russia’s occupation is a crucial step towards justice and accountability for human rights abuses by authorities in Crimea.

In March 2014, as Russia moved to consolidate control in Crimea, Human Rights Watch was on the ground, documenting abuses by the so-called “self-defense units”, paramilitary groups without insignia or a clear command structure, which ran amok and acted with complete impunity. These groups were implicated in attacks on reporters and activists, enforced disappearances, and abductions and torture of pro-Ukraine activists, while the authorities made no attempts to reign them in.

Having extending Russian legislation and policy to Crimea in violation of international law, the authorities have continued to flout binding norms of humanitarian law: from relentlessly persecuting Crimean Tatars, who dared to openly, peacefully voice criticism of Russia’s actions in Crimea to effectively forcing civilians under its control to choose between taking Russian citizenship or facing discrimination — and worse.  We’ve documented how Russian authorities are conscripting males in occupied Crimea, imposing criminal penalties on those who refuse to comply with the draft — another blatant violation of international humanitarian law, which forbids Russia from compelling Crimean residents to serve in its armed forces.

To date, Ukraine has lodged several other inter-State cases against Russia, and it will likely take a while before the European Court rules on the substance of Ukraine’s allegations. But there is no doubt that this week’s decision advances accountability for multiple human rights violations perpetrated in Crimea under Russia’s control.

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