Russia committed human rights violations in Crimea, European Court finds

The European Court of Human Rights ruled Tuesday that Russia and its security forces in Crimea committed numerous human rights violations during their decades-long occupation of Ukrainian territory.

In a case brought by the Ukrainian government, the court found evidence of illegal persecution and detention of those who criticized Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, as well as systematic repression of ethnic and religious minorities in Crimea. Evidence presented to the court painted a picture of a region under the tight grip of Moscow's authoritarian control, where any criticism is severely punished and accountability is non-existent for those with political connections.

The ruling by Europe's top human rights court, based on a case first filed in 2014, was a reminder that the region remains contested. It remains legally part of Ukraine, with deep historical and cultural ties, despite the Kremlin's coordinated campaign to erase that identity under the occupation.

“This decision is the first by which an international judicial body recognizes the Russian Federation as responsible for the policy of systematic and large-scale violations of various human rights and freedoms in the temporarily occupied territory of the Crimean peninsula,” said Iryna Mudra. deputy head of the office of President Volodymyr Zelenskyj.

The decision, said Ms. Mudra, who represented Ukraine at a hearing on the case last year in Strasbourg, France, paved the way for individual cases to be brought against Russia.

There were 43 cases of enforced disappearances between 2014 and 2018, with eight people still missing. According to the court, the disappeared were mostly pro-Ukrainian activists and journalists or members of the Crimean Tatar ethnic minority. Investigations into the disappearances have gone nowhere, the court added in its ruling.

Men and women were kidnapped by the Crimean Self-Defense Forces, Russian security forces, or agents of the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB. Those detained suffered torture, such as electrocutions and mock executions, and were held in inhumane conditions, particularly in the only pre-trial detention center, in Simferopol.

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

Russia withdrew from the court in 2022, ending the court's jurisdiction and cutting off avenues to justice for Moscow's critics. Russia has not cooperated with the court in the Crimea case, nor has it allowed investigators to enter the territory. Instead, Ukraine's lawyers and court judges relied on reports from international non-governmental organizations, as well as testimony.

The evidence cited in the ruling shows how Russia, and its proxy government in the region, have created an atmosphere of oppression, using comprehensive laws against extremism and terrorism to silence dissent. Pro-Ukrainian media were abolished, while the Ukrainian language was suppressed in schools. Ukrainian banks were nationalized, along with their clients' properties and assets, the court found.

Crimean Tatars, an ethnic minority, have also been targeted, and between 15,000 and 30,000 Tatars have fled the region since 2014. Tatar television channels were removed, their cultural and religious buildings vandalized, and some Tatar houses were painted with crosses. . All gatherings of Tatar leaders or groups believed to be pro-Ukrainian were violently dispersed and participants arrested.

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

“The chilling message is that resistance to the occupation is not only futile, but extremely dangerous,” Ben Emmerson, a defense attorney for the Ukrainian government, argued to the jury in December. Russia did not participate in 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 in February 2022.

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

Earlier this year, the Biden administration agreed to provide the Kiev government with long-range Army tactical missile systems, known as ATACMS, that could be used to strike Russian forces in occupied territory.

Marco Santora contributed to the reporting.

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