Russia Committed Human Rights Violations in Crimea, European Court Finds

The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday that Russia and its proxy security forces in Crimea have committed multiple human rights violations during its decade-long occupation of the former Ukrainian territory.

In a case brought by the government of Ukraine, the court found evidence of the unlawful persecution and detention of those who criticized Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, as well as the systemic repression of ethnic and religious minorities in Crimea. The evidence presented to the court painted a picture of a region under the tight grip of Moscow’s authoritarian control, where any criticism is harshly punished and accountability is nonexistent for the politically connected.

Between 2014 and 2018, there have been 43 cases of enforced disappearances, with eight people still missing. The disappeared were mostly pro-Ukrainian activists and journalists, or members of Crimea’s Tatar ethnic minority, the court found. Investigations of the disappearances went nowhere, the court added in its judgment.

Men and women were abducted by the Crimean self-defense forces, by Russian security forces or by agents of Russia’s Federal Security Service, or F.S.B. Those who were detained endured torture, like electrocution and mock executions, and were kept in inhumane conditions, particularly in the only pretrial detention center, in Simferopol.

Russian authorities also transferred some 12,500 prisoners to penal colonies in Russia from Crimea. Ukrainian political prisoners in particular were transferred to distant prisons, making it near impossible for their families to reach them. The court ordered that Russia return these prisoners.

Russia withdrew from the court in 2022, ending the court’s jurisdiction and cutting off avenues for justice for the critics of Moscow. Russia did not cooperate with the court in the Crimea case, nor did it allow investigators to enter the territory. Instead, lawyers for Ukraine and the judges of the court relied on reports from international nongovernmental organizations, as well as witness testimony.

Evidence cited in the ruling showed how Russia, and its proxy government in the region, have created an atmosphere of oppression, using blanket laws targeting extremism and terrorism to silence dissent. Pro-Ukrainian media outlets have been abolished, while the Ukrainian language has been suppressed in schools. Ukrainian banks have been nationalized, along with their customers’ property and assets, the court found.

Crimean Tatars, an ethnic minority, have also been targeted, and between 15,000 and 30,000 Tatar have fled the region since 2014. Tatar television channels have been removed from the air, their cultural and religious buildings vandalized and some Tatar homes have been painted with crosses. Any gatherings by Tatar leaders or groups deemed pro-Ukrainian have been violently broken up, with attendees detained.

Crimea’s occupying government has also cracked down on religious diversity, raiding madrassas and mosques, expelling Ukrainian Orthodox priests and repurposing their churches. Journalists critical of the regime are also routinely harassed and threatened.

“The chilling message is that resistance to the occupation is not only futile, but extremely dangerous,” Ben Emmerson, counsel for Ukraine’s government, argued in front of the panel of judges in December. Russia did not attend the proceedings.

Russian forces marched on the Crimean Peninsula in February 2014 ahead of the Kremlin’s illegal annexation of the peninsula, and the country’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine started in February 2022.

Today thousands of Russian troops occupy a region that is not only ideologically important to President Vladimir V. Putin, but strategically important in the Russian war in Ukraine.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration agreed to supply the government in Kyiv with long-range Army Tactical Missile Systems, known as ATACMS, that could be used to target Russian forces in the occupied territory.

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