FSB tortures detainees in occupied Crimea as law enforcement goes Soviet-style, UN report confirms

FSB searches houses of Crimean Tatars in the annexed Crimea, 2019. Source: Crimean Solidarity. 

Crimea, Russian Aggression

On 2 July 2020, UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet presented a new report of the Secretary-General on the human rights situation in Crimea. This second report covers the period from 1 July 2019 to 31 December 2019. The first report (A/74/276) covered the period from January 2014 to 30 June 2019.

The new report highlights tortures by the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) applied to detainees. The report also indicates other human rights violations by the Russian Federation that continue to take place in Crimea. In particular, Inadequate conditions of detention, Criminalization of freedom of expression.

UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet presents report on the human rights situation in Crimea. Source: news.un.org

Russian Federation expressed “principled non-acceptance” of the General Assembly resolutions and denied OHCHR entry to Crimea

On 31 January 2020, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) transmitted a note verbale to the Russian Federation seeking its cooperation to conduct a mission in Crimea. In its reply, the Russian Federation expressed “principled non-acceptance” of the General Assembly resolutions “on Crimean and Ukrainian issues.”

OHCHR has not been able to find appropriate modalities to conduct a mission to Crimea. Therefore, the monitoring mission in Ukraine conducted remote monitoring, contacting relatives of detainees, official sources, Crimean NGOs, and so on.

In all UN resolutions regarding Crimea, Russia is treated as an occupying power. International humanitarian law requires the occupying power to restore, and ensure, as far as possible, public order and safety, while respecting the laws in force in the country. However, Russia fails to comply with these demands, both in its treatment of detained pro-Ukrainian activists, as well as its suppressing freedom of speech and assembly in Crimea.

Tortures by FSB and other law enforcement agencies

Torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment (“ill-treatment”), are prohibited by both international humanitarian law and international human rights law with no exceptions. However, violations involving torture and other ill-treatment by law enforcement agencies in Crimea, particularly the FSB, were especially common immediately after a person’s arrest, during periods of incommunicado detention in unofficial places of detention.

FSB used beatings, electric shock, and suffocation to force victims to incriminate themselves, cooperate with law enforcement, or testify against others. In all the cases documented by OHCHR in which victims made credible complaints of torture or ill-treatment to the courts and law enforcement authorities in Crimea, no perpetrator has been held accountable.

Also, victims complained to OHCHR of unjustified force being applied during their arrest — use of sacks as blindfolds and a failure by the arresting officer to state the reasons for the arrest.

Editor’s Note

Tortures are a typical means of intimidation by the FSB in Russia. In particular, in April 2019, victims in Moscow protested against FSB methods of questioning.

Activist in Moscow holds a poster: “Ruslan Badartynov, came out of the FSB center with сoncussion.”

Medical personnel were reluctant to document injuries sustained by victims

Medical personnel of penitentiary institutions were often reluctant to document injuries sustained by victims prior to their admission to these institutions, which is inconsistent with their professional duties to treat and act in the best medical interests of patients, for whom they have a duty of care.

Detainees were deprived of their right to be represented by legal counsel of their own choosing and to publicity during court hearings

The practice of excluding the public from court hearings had been used to limit public awareness of trials, restrict public scrutiny and exert additional pressure on the defendants. The right to a public hearing was further diminished because the judgments in these cases were not published.

The FSB had deprived defendants of their right to be represented by legal counsel of their own choosing by imposing state-appointed lawyers and subsequently refusing the defendants access to their privately-retained lawyers. State-appointed lawyers failed to raise basic due process violations, ignored defendants’ complaints of torture, objected to their clients’ motions during trial, and failed to take any action while present during ill-treatment of their clients by FSB officers.

Editor’s Note

The practice of ill-treatment of detainees as well as compulsory appointment of state attorneys that would not protect defendants during politically-motivated cases was a common practice in Soviet Courts. In particular, during the notorious court hearings that sentenced Ukrainian poet and dissident Vasyl Stus in 1980.

Inadequate conditions of detention in overcrowded cells, beatings and use of excessive force by prison guards

Detainees in Crimea face grossly inadequate conditions of detention in overcrowded cells. Former detainees complained of systematic beatings and use of excessive force by prison guards, unjustified strip searches during which they were forced to squat naked, and placement in so-called pressing cells, where other detainees were encouraged by the detaining authorities to harass or beat them.

The provision of medical assistance in detention remained inadequate. Owing to the general lack of available medication, detainees were frequently forced to rely solely on medicine sent by relatives, which often arrived only after significant delays.

Amid numerous reports about overcrowding in Crimean detention facilities, a new penitentiary facility called “a corrective labor center” was established in Simferopol at the end of 2019. The Russian Federation also announced plans to build two additional pretrial detention centres in Simferopol by 2027, with capacity for 1,500 prisoners.

Detainees risk being transferred far away from family members to facilities located in the Russian Federation

Detainees continued to be transferred from Crimea to the Russian Federation at pretrial stages, to stand trial, or to serve sentences. Owing to the distances involved and the financial costs, their relatives were unable to visit them or cover the travel fees of defense lawyers.

Criminalization of freedom of expression, fines for posts on social networks

Criminalization of freedom of expression on social media continued in Crimea. OHCHR documented four cases in which individuals were convicted by courts in Crimea of administrative offences for their social media posts, with content deemed to be “extremist” under the law of the Russian Federation. For instance, on 2 July 2019, a city court in Sudak fined a Crimean Tatar for having posted a video on his social network page, six years previously (prior to the occupation of Crimea).

Journalists and media workers continued to face interference with their professional activities by the local authorities in Crimea, including law enforcement agencies. These practices included surveillance methods such as phone-tapping, being physically followed by law enforcement officers, threats of physical harm, criminal prosecution, arrests and prohibition of entry into the territory of Crimea. Numerous media outlets and individual journalists informed OHCHR that, owing to these risks, they would self-censor the content of their publications, conceal their authorship or limit their reporting to non-political topics and stories.

21,000 Crimean residents have been conscripted to the Russian army since 2015

The Russian Federation carried out its 10th military conscription campaign in Crimea in 2020, including citizens of Ukraine resident there. An additional 3,000 male residents of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea were enlisted, bringing the total number of men conscripted from Crimea to at least 21,000 since the practice began in 2015.

Russia could conduct such a massive conscription campaign due to automatic extension of the Russian Federation’s citizenship to all Ukrainian citizens who resided in Crimea on a permanent basis. This is a violation of the right to a nationality. People who rejected Russian citizenship were considered as foreigners and many of them faced deportation.

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Edited by: Sonia Maryn

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