29.09.2016. Demonstration in support of the Mejlis in Kyiv. Photo: Elvir Sagirman
On Thursday, 29 September 2016, the hearing of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation on the complaint on the ban of the representative body of the Crimean Tatars, the Mejlis, took place. As expected, the Court upheld its prohibition on the operation of the body. The decision essentially means not only a ban on Mejlis activities but also the prohibition of the whole indigenous people of Crimea – the Crimean Tatars.
Constant pressure and repressions against Crimean Tatars by Russia started with the beginning of the illegal annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Since then, the indigenous people of Crimea had become Russia’s enemy number one, and for a good reason. Crimean Tatar activists and politicians were the first to take measures against the occupation. The Crimean Tatars started returning to their fatherland less than 30 years ago after the deportation of 1944. Just after getting used to being at home, they found themselves under threat again.
Russian self-proclaimed authorities in Crimea opened proceedings against the Mejlis in February 2016, after so-called prosecutor of Crimea Natalia Poklonskaya filed the lawsuit on the ban of the Mejlis. On 26 April 2014, the Mejlis was prohibited after the so-called court of Crimea included it in the list of the extremist organizations. After the ban, a part of its leaders were forced to leave the peninsula, some chose the side of the so-called Crimean authorities (according to the leader of the Mejlis Refat Chubarov, 4 people). In general, the body started to work in an emergency mode and its central office moved to Kyiv.
The hearing on the appeal
On 29 September 2016, when the appeal to the ban was considered in Moscow, Crimean Tatars gathered at Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv to support the Mejlis. However, there were no doubts that the Court would not satisfy the appeal.
The interests of the Mejlis were represented by the lawyers of the Human Rights Center Memorial. There were also representatives of the Embassy of Ukraine in Russia, the spokesman for the European Commission in the Russian Federation, and European Union diplomats in the court. The representatives of the Mejlis itself did not come to the hearing to protest the actions of the Russian authorities. Their absence was meant to emphasize their disagreement with the Russian authorities considering themselves to have a right to ban a representative organ elected by the Crimean Tatar people and their complete distrust in Russian justice.
“According to the practice of the Supreme Court, it has never canceled the decisions on recognizing organizations as extremists and there is no hope that it will happen now,” said the Mejlis defender Kirill Koroteev before the final decision.
However, Ilmi Umerov, deputy head of the Mejlis, who was recently released from forced psychiatric treatment in Crimea, thinks that the ban should not even apply to Crimea in the first place.
“For the Russian Federation, [the ban] will be final because it is the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. We think that its jurisdiction can’t be active on the territory of Crimea because Crimea is considered as the territory of Ukraine,” said Umerov.
Why one can’t just ban the Mejlis
The Mejlis is considered to be the representative body of the Crimean Tatars (not an NGO, as it is according to Russia’s formula) because it is a legitimately elected body. Its members are chosen by a direct secret ballot. First, elections of the Kurultai delegates takes place throughout Crimea. Then, these elected delegates choose the 33 representatives of the Mejlis by secret ballot.
This was one of the arguments of the defense of the Mejlis in the court on Thursday.
“In order to recognize a group of people as a non-profit organization, this organization has to have a statute. The Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people does not have and cannot have such a statute,” added Kirill Koroteev.
As the lawyer stated, Mejlis activities are regulated by article 5 of the UN Declaration on the rights of the indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their special political and legal institutions.
Another argument of the defense was that the bodies of the Mejlis are acting on the territory of another country (Ukraine). Thus, it is impossible to forbid the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people on Crimean territory, where Russian anti-extremist legislation does not apply.
Banning the Mejlis equal to banning the Crimean Tatars
According to the Kirill Koroteev, the ban will open a new wave of repressions against the Crimean Tatars.
“This means that any member of the Mejlis can be subjected to criminal prosecution. Membership in an extremist organization is in itself a crime under Russian law, even if you don’t do anything else,” said Koroteev.
He emphasized that the “security forces” in Crimea will consider not only the 33 representatives of the central Mejlis as members of an extremist organization but members of the local Mejlises also. The Mejlis has representatives almost in every Crimean settlement. It has hundreds of representatives on the ground who take part in village or street gatherings. Thus, nearly every Crimean Tatar can be accused of extremist activities.
Representatives of human rights monitoring organizations, Ukrainian and international civil society groups, Members of Parliament of Ukraine, and politicians wrote an appeal letter asking for the international support for the Mejlis. In it they also emphasized the results to which the ban can lead:
“If the verdict remains unchanged:
- 2500 democratically elected representatives of the Crimean Tatars will acquire a status of extremists and will become an automatic target of law-enforcement agencies.
- Tens of thousands of people who contact and work with the members of Mejlis may also be repressed by the state machine.
- It would not be an overstatement to suggest that under such circumstances merely being a Crimean Tatar is illegal in the eyes of the occupying forces.
In fact, banning the Mejlis means banning the entire people. The repression machine may go out of control altogether given the fact that no permanent mission of any human rights organization is present in Crimea and there is not a single independent media outlet operating in the peninsula,” said the letter.
The repression machine in action
Being a Crimean Tatar in Crimea is already dangerous. Immediately after the occupation, Russia prohibited the political leaders of the nation Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov from entering the peninsula. Then the kidnappings and arrests of Crimean Tatars under falsified pretexts started.
Apart from the case of the Mejlis, there are many other cases against Crimean Tatars which aroused heated public debate. The first is “The Case of February 26.” On 26 February 2014, when unmarked Russian troops started taking over strategic objects in Crimea, a demonstration for Ukraine’s territorial integrity took place in Simferopol. After the occupation, the so-called “Crimean authorities” opened criminal procedures against the participants in this demonstration for organizing civil unrest. It is noteworthy that only Crimean Tatars are accused in the case.
The second is the case of which activists are calling the case of Hizb ut-Tahrir. In the summer of 2015, four young people were detained and accused of extremists activity and membership in the organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, which was forbidden in Russia in 2003.
According to the Crimean Tatar World Congress, 9 people were killed, 15 kidnapped, and 25 are imprisoned as political prisoners after Russia’s illegal annexation of the peninsula in March 2014.
In spring of 2016, the Deputy Head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis Mr. Ilmi Umerov became a subject of a forced psychiatric evaluation.
Apart from these direct actions against the Crimean Tatars, Russia is attempting to portray Crimean Tatars as dangerous extremists to other nationalities living in Crimea, in order to prevent attempts of collaboration or even communication between them.
At the demonstration on 29 September 2016, Tamila Tasheva, head of the Crimea SOS NGO, said that repressions against the Crimean Tatars started with the creation of pro-Russian bodies imitating the Mejlis, which the occupational “authorities” are trying to promote.
According to Kirill Koroteev, the ban of the Mejlis will make it easier for Russian investigators “to detect” cases of extremism via social media monitoring than to look for real criminals. He informed that after completing the formal procedures in the Russian Federation the case will be directed to the European Court on the Human Rights.