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Opening Remarks by Adam Abdelmoula, Director Human Rights Council and Treaty Mechanisms Division, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the international monitoriing of the human rights situation in crimea: findings and perspectives

17 June 2016

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Since March 2014, OHCHR through the UN human rights monitoring mission in Ukraine has been monitoring human rights throughout Ukraine, including the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol, henceforth referred to as Crimea.

With 43 OHCHR staff currently deployed in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Kramatorsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk and Odesa, the Mission published 14 public reports. They provide facts, analysis and recommendations on civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights in Ukraine, with a focus on the situation in the east of the country and Crimea, whose status is prescribed by UN General Assembly Resolution 68/262.

Regrettably, the Mission has not been granted access to Crimea. As a result, monitoring is conducted from the main office of the Human Rights Mission in Kyiv, and is supplemented by regular trips to the region of Kherson bordering Crimea.

Information collected through various sources, including direct interviews also with IDPs, indicates that the human rights situation in Crimea is of great concern.

Our work has highlighted multiple human rights violations committed by the de facto authorities. They include unwarranted arrests and searches, torture and ill-treatment of activists who have criticised the de facto authorities or questioned the status of Crimea as a part of the Russian Federation. Since March 2014, we have documented one death and 10 cases of suspicious disappearances involving 3 ethnic Ukrainians and 7 Crimean Tatars, the last one of which occurred in May 2016. The persons who went missing were either known for their pro-Ukraine positions or seen to be abducted by men in uniform, often associated with the so-called ‘Crimean self-defence’. No investigations of those deaths or disappearances have yielded results. Other cases have involved house searches, abusive questioning as suspects or witnesses, the imposition of fines, and job dismissals. Those who expressed diverging views often lost their jobs, property and had to flee with no access to justice. There is an urgent need for accountability for these and other serious human rights violations. The Russian Federation, which exercises de facto control over the territory of Crimea, is obliged to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all, in line with the international treaties to which it is party.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Many violations have targeted the Crimean Tatar community, which has been the most outspoken in its opposition to the unfolding events. Crimean Tatars have been arrested on various grounds, including officials of the Mejlis, the representative body of the Crimean Tatar community. Ilmi Umerov, one of the three deputy heads of the Mejlis, was arrested on 12 May 2016 and charged for making “public calls aimed at undermining the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation”, an offense which carries a prison sentence of up to 5 years. Another deputy head of the Mejlis, Akhtem Chiigoz, was arrested in January 2015 on suspicion of organising mass riots, a charge which carries a prison sentence of 4 to 10 years. The former and current heads of the Mejlis were banned in 2014 from entering the Russian Federation and Crimea. The Mejlis itself was declared by a Crimean ‘court’ to be an extremist organization on 26 April 2016 and its activities were prohibited. As a consequence, members or supporters of the Mejlis can now be subjected to criminal prosecution and imprisonment for up to eight years.

The ‘police’ regularly conduct police raids of homes, cafés, mosques, markets and businesses which belong to or are places of gathering for Crimean Muslims. In the first five months of 2016, 10 Crimean Muslims, of whom 9 Crimean Tatars, have been arrested for allegedly belonging to the Hizb-ut-Tahrir religious movement. In 2015, four Crimean Tatars had been arrested on the same grounds. 

Members of the Ukrainian community have also reported arrests and harassment. For example, in 2015, four activists were sentenced to corrective labour after they unfurled a Ukrainian flag with the inscription “Crimea is Ukraine” during a rally to commemorate a national poet.  

Russian Federation laws on terrorism and extremism have been used to pressurize, intimidate and sanction people who express opinions challenging Crimea’s status as a part of the Russian Federation or their attachment to Ukraine publicly or via social media networks. Film-maker Oleg Sientsov was sentenced in August 2015 to 20 years of prison on terrorism charges and during legal proceedings characterized by multiple fair trial violations. A co-accused,

Oleksandr Kolchenko, received a 10-year prison sentence for participation in the ‘terrorist plot’ allegedly organized by Sientsov.  Two Maidan activists have been accused of violence against riot police officers in Kyiv and sentenced by Crimean courts to prisons terms. Oleksandr Kostenko was convicted to 4 years and two months in 2015 and Andriy Kolomiyets to ten years' imprisonment on 11 June 2016.

In a positive development, Gennady Afanasiyev, who together with Oleg Sientsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko had been sentenced by Russian Federation courts for terrorism has been pardoned by the President of the Russian Federation on 14 June and exchanged on the same day. The practice of mutual exchanges of people sentenced by the Russian Federation and Ukraine started with the prisoner swap of Nadiia Savchenko on 25 May and appears to be continuing.

Excellencies,

Human rights in Crimea have been affected by the imposition of the citizenship and legislative framework of the Russian Federation, including penal laws, and the resulting administration of justice in accordance with this framework. Those who rejected Russian Federation citizenship face discrimination in employment, education, healthcare or access to other social services. They also face obstacles in reregistering or selling private properties and businesses.

The right to health, particularly for those suffering from drug dependence, has deteriorated dramatically. The Russian Federation bans the medical use of methadone and buprenorphine in the treatment of drug dependence and does not have maintenance therapy programs. Needle exchange programs are rejected. Many drug-users are believed to have died in Crimea due to complications related to overdose or chronic illness.

The fundamental freedom of peaceful assembly is regularly denied. This year’s commemoration of the Crimean Tatar deportation was, like in the previous two years, prohibited for all individuals and groups not affiliated to the de facto authorities.  Access to information has been curtailed through formal measures, as well as by the intimidating effect of assaults, threats and arrests of journalists and individuals representing critical points of view. On 19 April 2016, Mykola Semena, a contributor to a news site about Crimea run by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was accused of issuing calls to undermine the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation via mass media and ordered not to leave the peninsula.  

To conclude, I would like to recall some recommendations addressed by UN human rights mechanisms and OHCHR to the de facto authorities and the Russian Federation. Notably, they include a call to grant unimpeded access to Crimea for international organizations, agencies and institutions. All human rights violations should be prosecuted and claims involving the Crimean law enforcement or so-called self-defence groups should be effectively investigated. The exercise of fundamental freedoms should not be interfered with and legislation applying to the fight against terrorism and extremism should not be invoked to criminalize such exercise. Crimean residents who retained their Ukrainian nationality should not be discriminated against in any sphere of public life and should be granted full access to public services on equal terms. The recommendations have also emphasized that the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples should be guaranteed. This includes allowing the Crimean Tatar community to choose its own self-governing institutions and repealing the decision to outlaw the Mejlis; upholding media pluralism and enabling Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar media to operate without restrictions. Finally, all groups and individuals must have the right to hold peaceful public assemblies and express cultural identities, political opinions and beliefs without being harassed or prosecuted.