Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Mejlis ban: Russia’s “extremist jokers”

Ukraine should raise more often the question of intensifying the “Crimean package” of sanctions against Russia on the international arena
12 October, 2016 - 18:19
Photo by Artem SLIPACHUK, The Day

As expected, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation ruled in late September 2016 that the decision to ban the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People was “legitimate.” The media report that a Russian public prosecutor said at the court session that the Mejlis’ main fault was failure to accept the annexation of the Crimean peninsula and attempts to restore it as part of Ukraine. Russia’s Supreme Court in fact upheld the ruling of the so-called Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea on April 26, 2016, which declared the Mejlis an “extremist organization” and banned it on the territory of Russia.

From now on, the Mejlis is on the “List of Nonprofit Organizations Judicially Liquidated or Banned for Reasons Stipulated by the Federal Law ‘On Countering Extremist Activities.’”

The latest appeal of the Mejlis was not satisfied, which makes it possible to appeal against the Russian SC’s ruling at the European Human Rights Court. Incidentally, the Russian materials of “investigation” call the Mejlis a “civic association,” which is wrong because it is a representative body of the people, an institution of the Crimean Tatars’ national self-government, formed as a result of general elections in this ethnic community.

Unfortunately, it is beyond a doubt that the Russian Supreme Court’s ruling gives the green light for mounting pressure on “undesirable” Crimean Tatars. The system of Crimean Tatars’ self-government on the peninsula is quite ramified, with almost 3,000 people being members of various-level mejlises. In essence, now that the Russian SC’s “ruling” has come into force, any representative of Crimean Tatars’ national self-government bodies may face a 10-year prison term for alleged “participation in an extremist association.” Should events take the most pessimistic turn, there will be a considerable danger that Mejlis members may become new “political hostages” of Russia.

There are endless reasons for the occupational authorities to be irritated with the Mejlis. The freshest example is the State Duma election campaign in the occupied Crimea. The Mejlis called for boycotting the elections, and, in spite of administrative pressure, the turnout was a mere 9 percent in some places densely populated by Crimean Tatars.

The Russian authorities were deliberately trying to split the Crimean Tatar self-government bodies by establishing the pro-Russian movement Qirim, but the latter failed to receive mass-scale support. So the former had to rev up the repressive machine, with trumped-up charges of extremism being its power supply. Fourteen Crimean Tatars were arrested for political reasons. What has caused a particular stir is the case against Mejlis deputy head Ilmi Umerov who was, in the worst traditions of the Brezhnev era, subjected to a forced psychiatric examination. The punitive machine is trying to present Umerov as “mad” only because he resolutely rejects the annexation of Crimea. Russia’s “work” with Crimean Tatars boils down, on the one hand, to an attempt to bring up loyalty and, on the other, to the actions that can radicalize Crimean Tatars under the North Caucasian scenario.

The subject of “extremism,” which is more and more on the agenda, is not confined to judicial prosecution of and criminal cases against those disloyal to the occupational authorities. Representatives of the Russian Internal Affairs Ministry hold mass-scale seminars with the media in Crimea and conduct classes in general education schools, teaching how to “counter extremism,” for “all state and society institutions, including local government bodies, must take part in the prevention of extremism.”

Six Mejlis members were summoned to the Anti-Extremism Center of the Crimean Republic’s Internal Affairs Ministry. Administrative reports were drawn up for participation in “prohibited assemblies.” Russian law-enforcers accuse them of “organizing an officially suspended civic or religious association.” Earlier, a court imposed fines on two more Mejlis members for participating in the sessions of this Crimean Tatar self-government body.

Incidentally, trials of Mejlis members are going on, with cash fines having already been levied on Ali Khamzin, Ilmi Umerov, and Sadiq Tabakh. Cases against Emine Avamileva, Mustafa Aushev, and other Mejlis members are also being “examined.” What is more, the court turned down the request that sessions be conducted in the Crimean Tatar language.

The ruling of Russia’s Supreme Court has triggered a negative international reaction. For example, US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that the United States refuses to acknowledge the Russian court’s decision to ban the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People as an extremist organization. The State Department urged Russia to immediately discontinue the practice of arrests and politically motivated persecutions of Crimean Tatars, infringement of their rights and freedoms.

The ban on the Mejlis in the occupied Crimea, imposed by the Russian Supreme Court, illustrates the mass-scale punishment of Crimean Tatars, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Tanju Bilgic stated.

The EU representation in Ukraine said that the Russian Supreme Court’s ruling is “a serious attack on the rights of Crimean Tatars” and called on Russia “to fully safeguard their rights in compliance with international law.”

This statement correlates with two recent European Parliament resolutions. On February 4, 2016, the EP passed a resolution on human rights, including those of Crimean Tatars in Crimea. The other resolution, dated May 12, 2016, condemns the decision of the so-called Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea to ban the Mejlis, insists on the immediate cancellation of it, and characterizes the court verdict “as systematic and targeted persecution of Crimean Tatars, a politically motivated action aimed at further intimidating the legitimate representatives of the Tatar community.”

At the same time, Kyiv has called on its international partners to more actively defend human rights in the occupied Crimea. In its September 29 statement, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry urged the democratic community to ensure trouble-free access for the main conventional and monitoring mechanisms of international human rights organizations in order to establish continuous monitoring of the human rights situation on the Russian-occupied peninsula.

In his turn, President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine compared the ban on the Mejlis to Stalin-era Soviet policies.

The Ukrainian side has said it will be trying to prove at all judicial levels the illegitimacy of all the Russian actions connected with the occupation of Crimea, including the latest ruling of Russia’s SC about the Mejlis.

The ban of the Mejlis by the Russian Federation is not just a ban on a “nonprofit organization,” for it is a people’s self-government body. Therefore, it is not enough to speak of infringing the right to the freedom of associations – it is a violation of the right to representation and national self-government guaranteed, for example, by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted on September 13, 2007, and ILO (International Labor Organization) conventions.

Crimean Tatars were recognized as indigenous people by the Verkhovna Rada resolution of March 20, 2014. In this resolution, Ukraine recognizes the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People as the executive body of the Kurultai of the Crimean Tatar People, and the Kurultai as the highest representative body of the Crimean Tatar people and pledges its support to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Commenting on the Russian Supreme Court’s ruling, Mejlis head Refat Chubarov said he was going to sue Russia at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

However, the Russian authorities decide on their own whether or not to comply with rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. For instance, the Russian State Duma passed a law on December 4, 2015, which allows the Constitutional Court “to be guided by the principle of supremacy of the Russian Constitution,” when dealing with ECtHR verdicts. For example, Russia does not need to comply with ECtHR rulings if they “violate the fundamental constitutional norms laid down in the Consitution of Russia.” There have already been precedents when the CC of Russia ruled not to comply with ECtHR decisions – for example, about granting voting rights to convicts.

The international community has today a limited ability to react to human rights violations in Crimea. It would be a good idea if the Ukrainian side also raised the question of intensifying the “Crimea package” of sanctions against Russia, although it is a difficult task today against the backdrop of never-ending talk in some EU countries about the easing of sanctions and Putin’s “policy of pragmatism.”

One should continuously monitor and assess the human rights situation on the peninsula, and these subjects should become part of constant international attention and political actions. For what stands behind all the instances of harassment and breach of rights is not only political assessments but also, above all, concrete destinies of concrete individuals, our compatriots, who refused to obey the aggressor.

By Yulia TYSHCHENKO, Svitlana HOROBCHYSHYNA, Ukrainian Independent Center of Political Studies