One of the most proactive lawyers defending Crimean Tatars in courts ends up behind bars
On January 26, lawyer Emil Kurbedinov and his colleague Edem Semedliayev were on their way to see Seiran Saliyev, a Crimean Tatar activist who was being searched by the FSB, Russia’s security bureau. According to reports in Russia, Saliyev drew special attention with his posts “of extremist nature” on social media.
Kurbedinov never got to his defendant. A road patrol stopped him on his way to Bakhchysarai where Saliyev lives. He turned on live streaming via Facebook immediately but that didn’t help. A group of masked police officers approached the lawyer’s car and told him that he was detained. At the same time, two police groups arrived at his apartment and office and took the computers and all other equipment, thus putting at risk the legal professional privilege guaranteed by law.
Then, a trial took place where lawyer Kurbedinov and activist Saliyev were given 10 and 12 days of administrative arrest respectively. The charge was based on what they had published four years earlier. In 2013, Kurbedinov shared posts of the Hizb ut-Tahrir Ukraine group about their rallies. Later, the group was labeled as terrorist organization in Russia. This was the reason why Kurbedinov was charged with the spread of extremist materials last week: the actions that had taken place before the occupation, i.e. before Russia began to impose its order on the Crimean territory.
Somewhat earlier, Russian law enforcers attempted to detain Nikolay Polozov, the defender for Ilmi Umerov, Deputy Chair of the Mejlis. The FSB tried to interrogate him. If he agreed to speak to the investigators, he would automatically be expelled from the February 26 Rally case: according to Russian law, a person cannot act as defender for Umerov after interrogation as a witness. Polozov managed to avoid this with barely any consequences for his activity. Kurbedinov’s case is different. Now, human rights advocates are speaking with more and more alarm of the persecution of lawyers unfolding on the Crimean peninsula.
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“The reasoning is clear: they began by cleansing the occupied peninsula of the people with proactive civil position; then they targeted the defenders of those people to get them out of the way,” explains Oleksandra Matviychuk, coordinator of the EuroMaidan SOS NGO and Let my people go campaign activist. “Of course, such actions have nothing to do with international standards or even the mechanisms that guarantee professional activity for lawyers in the harsh laws of the Russian Federation. The ongoing pressure on Nikolai Polozov to testify against his client as a way to squeeze him out of defending Umerov is a clear case of this.”
The persecution of Kurbedinov is nothing new. Activists have long been reporting pressure on him. One case was the storming of his office last summer.
“It is clear that the lawyer who is public about his position and bluntly speaks about things as they are, as well as acts as defender in a slew of political cases that feature in the UN General Assembly discussions, is in the limelight of the FSB and Center E (Counter-Extremism Center – Ed.),” Oleksandra claims. “The occupational authorities fear this. So the switch from “preventive talks” to other instruments of persuasion was only a matter of time.”
Russian and Ukrainian lawyers claim that Russia’s actions are in violation of Art. 70 of the Geneva Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. It claims that an occupying state cannot arrest, persecute or put in jail individuals who are protected by the Convention. In addition to that, the Convention banks persecution for the thoughts or actions that took place before the occupation or in time of its temporary suspension.
“Why is the Kurbedinov case so concerning? He was one of the very few local lawyers who actively worked on politically motivated cases,” Dmitriy Makarov, Russian lawyer and expert at the Crimean field mission, explains. “This is an unprecedented case of an administrative detention for the lawyer who was on his way to see a defendant during a police raid, whatever they call this incident. It’s a continuation of the path towards isolation. Both Russia and Ukraine play in favor of this. On the one hand, international presence in Crimea is limited by Ukrainian laws. On the other hand, Russia is putting pressure. As a result, this hits people like Emil. He has no colleagues to turn to who are less involved in the conflict. This leads to a risk that the campaign against extremism, Hizb ut-Tahrir and its possible members defended by Emil, will unfold. It may come out that the police will no longer have to prove a criminal intention or preparation for criminal actions. Indirect evidence and some sort of materials they have could be enough to pretend that the person is involved in the organization and is put in jail. It’s very convenient,” he concludes.
International organizations and Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs have made statements condemning the arrest of Kurbedinov. Freedom House has called on the Russian Federation to free him.
“I qualify these unacceptable actions of law enforcers as pressure,” Makarov claims. “I wish the Russian Federal Chamber of Lawyers reacted to this as tough as possible. So far, I am not aware that such reaction has taken place. If this happened in a Russian region, I think the reaction come about sooner, although it’s difficult to discuss this. Surprisingly, people who qualify the developments around Crimea as annexation and occupation, as well as people who approve this, do not perceive Crimea as a Russian region. This could be why there is no reaction: is it feasible to appeal to the Russian government in this situation? Yet, such reasoning should at least partly be put on the sidelines. We have a specific person whose professional activity must be protected in any case, regardless of the political position,” he concludes.
There has been criticism of the office of Ukrainian Ombudswoman Valeria Lutkovska for having made no public statements to condemn the actions of Russian law enforcers. “The arguments expressed by the Office’s staff on social media indicate that Ukraine’s Ombudswoman Office is currently a hostage to the negotiation process with Tatiana Moskalkova (Russian Ombudswoman for Human Rights – Ed.) to a certain extent,” comments Maria Tomak, coordinator for the Media Initiative for Human Rights. She assumes that this could mean that the Ombudswoman Office can’t make public statements in the context of possible transfer to Ukraine of its citizens who had been sentenced to terms in prison before the occupation of Crimea. “The efficiency of the Ombudswoman’s possible statements looks questionable to me in this situation. Instead, their efforts should focus on getting the reaction of the leading human rights organizations, as well as of civilized countries. That could be a chance to free lawyer Kurbedinov and prevent criminal persecution against him,” Tomak says.
The arrest of Kurbedinov brings poses a slew of risks for activists facing persecutions in Crimea. Ukrainian Ministry of Justice representatives have no access to the annexed Crimea. Nor is Ukraine represented there by any consuls, consulates or embassies as the peninsula is part of Ukraine.
“The human rights situation in Crimea is very bad. The peninsula is completely isolated from official international organizations (whose representatives are protected by their mandates) which monitor or protect human rights,” says lawyer Yevhenia Zakrevska who was recently banned from entering Crimea as a ‘threat to the national security of the Russian Federation’. “No such organization can work there. The activities of NGOs is extremely complicated there: they have no protection once there; it is very difficult and long to legally enter Crimea for non-Ukrainian citizens from the Ukrainian territory. It is illegal to do that from the territory of Russia. And dangerous in both cases. It is objectively dangerous for Ukrainian human rights advocates, lawyers and journalists to travel to Crimea, many can’t go there because of Russia’s bans.”
Even though Crimea is not a territory of the shooting like the Donbas, it is more closed, Zakrevska adds. Therefore, all information about the developments there comes exclusively from local lawyers, activists, journalists, Russian journalists and human rights activists who go there from time to time, she concludes. It is Crimean lawyers who are not afraid to take on politically risky cases that provide the only de facto protection to the locals in Crimea. Few of such lawyers remain in Crimea, Zakrevska points out. Meanwhile, options for work of Russian human rights advocates and lawyers in the annexed Crimea are limited with Ukrainian laws and Russian pressure. All this is in the context of the most massive presence of the Russian FSB and special services in Crimea compared to any region of Russia. “That’s why the persecutions, intimidation and arrests of the few lawyers who actually defend the most vulnerable groups is the last fatal blow to anything from the human rights domain that has managed to survive Russia’s policies in Crimea,” Zakrevska says.
Lawyer Kurbedinov will be under arrest at least through February 4. Activist Saliyev will be detained through February 6. This gives the FSB enough time to come up with any kind of kompromat against them, particularly given that their computes and equipment have been seized.
UPD: On January 30, Ilmi Umerov was handed a revised indictment. His charges remain unchanged from the previous time: the authorities of the occupied Crimea accuse the 59-year old Crimean Tatar politician and activist of violating Russia’s territorial integrity. Russia put him on the list of “terrorists and extremists” on its Federal Financial Monitoring Service website. Umerov intends to appeal against this action.
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