Interviewed by Anna Korbut
U.W.: We hear numerous reports of serious abuse of human rights and persecution of Crimean Tatars in the annexed Crimea. During your latest visit to Ukraine, you spoke to the authorities of the annexed peninsula, Crimean Tatar activists, as well as Ukrainian and Russian government officials. Was there any difference in their rhetoric regarding the situation on human rights in Crimea?
There is a huge gap in perceptions of this situation between local authorities (in Crimea – Ed.) and most Crimean Tatars I met with. The overwhelming sense I got was that of fear and being intimidated by heavy-handed police actions and activities of the FSB, raids by masked armed men on madrasas, NGOs, businesses and private homes. I tried to stress to the authorities that what they were doing is completely unnecessary and disproportionate because there is no extremism or history of jihadism among Crimean Tatars. They (the authorities – Ed.) acknowledged that there might have been some excesses, but they are caused by security concerns. I asked them to stop it immediately in order to reinstate the sense of security among Crimean Tatars. These people just want to live in their homes. They may disagree with political things, but they have the right to this, the right to disagree peacefully which is what they have been doing.
U.W.: Do you have a sense that situation may change anytime soon? What mechanisms – or organizations, including international, could actually push the local Crimean authorities to stop the persecutions?
One small development which I hope will lead up to concrete prosecutions into these cases: a local contact group was established to examine the cases of disappearances (Mustafa Dzhemilev, the leader of Crimean Tatar people, said at the PACE session in early October that 18 Crimean Tatars have gone missing since Russia annexed Crimea – Ed.). It consists of representatives of the Investigative Committee of Russia and of local law enforcers in Crimea. It should examine the two killings, and now five cases of disappearance of people. They are taking prerequisite investigative steps and have acknowledged these to be the cases of interest and concern to them. I would like to see the results and those who are responsible held accountable.
Some pieces of evidence point to the fact that the “self-defense forces” or individuals from these forces were implicated in a number of these cases. The litmus test for me as regards the assessment of this contact group’s work will be whether they can call them to account. I called on the authorities to do away with these self-defense forces and to integrate anybody who has not been implicated in human rights violations into the police after they go through the necessary professional training. But I think it is unacceptable to have military force that is not foreseen by any law that I know of, especially if some of its representatives have been implicated in serious human rights violations.
RELATED ARTICLE: Will History Repeat for Crimean Tatars?
U.W.: What about Ukrainians who refuse to switch to Russian citizenship? Does the Ukrainian government have any way to protect them in Crimea? What should be done in the first place to that end?
This was the problem that I highlighted in my report, as well as the UN did in theirs. There were a number of problematic aspects to this so called “passportisation”. One was the lack of clarity about what will happen to those who do not take the Russian citizenship. I did not receive any clear answer to this question from the local authorities in Crimea. Others are the short time of period to allow an informed decision, and conditions in which people could hardly make a well-informed choice about these issues.
I think the Ukrainian authorities, as well as the international community, have a difficult time in protecting the rights of people in Crimea. One thing that is clear though is that the European Convention on Human Rights still applies. The people who are making decisions that infringe upon the rights of citizens in Crimea will be held accountable under it. This is something that needs to be borne in mind when the situation in Crimea is discussed.
U.W.: You have met with Russian authorities in Moscow. Have you discussed the issue of Ukrainian political prisoners including Nadiya Savchenko and Oleg Sentsov?
I raised their cases with the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and asked if these cases were part of various prisoner exchange negotiations. He said they were not. I also raised the cases with Ella Panfilova, the Russian Ombudsperson. She said that she had turned to the Federal Migration Service, asking them for information on the citizenship status of Mr. Sentsov as the first step to clarifying whether or not the Ukrainian authorities are allowed to see him. I hope that the Ombudsperson of Russia will remain engaged in these issues. I think that she has shown some good will in cooperation with the Ukrainian Ombudsman on various issues of common concern. These cases are of great concern, they are problematic and we need to follow them closely.
The Ukrainian authorities have placed these issues firm on the agenda for the international community to follow closely and to engage efforts to improve the conditions of the prisoners, and to have them released.
RELATED ARTICLE: A New Crimean Front: A project to neutralise the protest movement of Crimean Tatars and undermine the influence of the Mejlis
U.W.: How much the situation in Crimea is in the focus of international community and what it used to be? What is the situation now? Is the attention of international community to this question fading, because it’s very important to Crimean Tartars to have it?
One of the reasons for which I thought it was important to go to Crimea was to draw attention to the situation there. It was overshadowed by the war in the Donbas. So, it was useful to go to Crimea to gather information and assess the human right situation, and to discuss all concerns.
It is essential for the international community to continue to have access there and to keep working there. I salute and welcome the work of the field mission there. It is an excellent initiative of Ukrainian and Russian human rights defenders. They should be supported and their voices should be heard. But, as you said, it is very important to keep the attention focused on human rights issues so that concerns can be addressed properly and people can live in security regardless of their opinion on the political situation.
U.W.: According to your report, Russia’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs told you that the best way to access Crime to monitor the human right situation there would be through Moscow. If international organizations use that, wouldn’t it give any legitimization to the Russian occupation of the peninsula?
This is indeed what he suggested when I asked him whether it mattered, which route I entered Crimea. However, as I noted in my report, I think that access to Crimea should be available to people at any time and through any route they choose. I appreciate the Ukrainian authorities’ understanding of my going there via Moscow. Let me stress that this was an exceptional case and I appreciate the understanding, given how sensitive these issues are.
I am not aware of any Russian legislation that would limit access by certain routes to certain territories that the Russians consider to be their territory. Everyone should have access there. It is in the interests of Russia that various claims and allegations can be verified and looked into. And it is in the interests of the international community because this would allow prevention of pressure that could lead to displacement of people, further sufferings and humanitarian problems.
RELATED ARTICLE: Self-Preservation for Crimean Muslims
U.W.: What are internationally effective mechanisms to prevent or just stop that thing looks as another deportation of Crimean Tartars from the peninsula, their homeland? What international community might do? There is a strong feeling that Ukrainian authorities can’t affect this situation much.
I certainly hope that we will not see mass displacement of people from Crimea although this is a risk if pressure continues on them. So far, the figures I have seen from the UNCR suggests that about 20,000 people have moved from Crimea to the mainland Ukraine, and around half of these would be Crimean Tatars. I would sincerely hope that the authorities exercising power there refrain from pressure, intimidation and attacks, investigate human rights violations, and create a sense of security for everybody.
Since the European Convention on Human Rights still applies to Crimea, people who face violations of their rights can apply to the European Court of Human Rights, which will then make an assessment as to who should be responding for providing information and making judgments they might render. Thus far, I have been the first representative of an international organization that has been able to go to Crimea. I hope very much that the UN, and other international organizations, will be allowed to do its work there as well, without any prejudice to the status of the territory.