What pro-Russian Crimeans weren’t ready for

Arrests for pro-Ukrainian statements or criticism of the leadership Social media posts may soon become grounds ...

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Arrests for pro-Ukrainian statements or criticism of the leadership

Social media posts may soon become grounds for criminal prosecution for the Crimean population and the special services will have open access to e-mails and SMS’s. All this will really happen soon in Crimea, which has been living under Russian laws for two years already.

The so-called ‘Anti-terrorist package’, drawn up by Irina Yarovaya, an MP and Victor Ozerov, a senator, will take effect on July 20, 2016. The RF State Duma passed the bill on June 24. It was supported by 277 Russian lawmakers.

Russian President, Vladimir Putin, signed the corresponding legal package on July 7.

The bills adopted will give Russian law-enforcers access to all phone conversations and electronic communication. Telecommunication operators have been obligated to store all users’ messages for a period of 6 months, as well as to provide the authorities with the means of decoding the encrypted messenges.    

“Messengers” like WhatsApp and Telegram will be fined 1 million RUB for not disclosing message decoder keys to the FSB (Federal Security Service of the RF). 

An article on non-dissemination of information: i.e. ‘failure to report a crime’, has been also introduced to the RF Criminal Code. It provides for up to 1 year in prison. In addition, the age of criminal liability in cases of terrorism has been lowered to 14.  A new article concerning ‘international terrorism’, which prescribes life imprisonment, will also be introduced. 

The new amendments to the Russian Criminal Code have been already termed as ‘unprecedentedly cruel’ in Russia. For the population of the annexed Crimea, which used to live under Ukrainian legislation, it would mean a new wave of reprisals. Moreover, even the pro-Russian population is often shocked by law enforcers’ actions, as they have already dispersed several rallies and made some rough arrests in Crimea since the beginning of this year.

“The Russian authorities already perceive any display of personal opinion as a threat to its existence. Therefore, more stringent ‘extremist’ and ‘terrorist’ amendments are being introduced to Russian legislation,” says Vissarion Aseev, a member of the Crimean Human Rights Group. 

“The Crimean population was accustomed to the freedom of assembly and freedom of expression in Ukraine. However, even the pro-Russian population of Crimea is often shocked by the punishments imposed. Even the Cossacks, who supported the occupation, hit the street in protest and they were dispersed. They didn’t understand it.”

The Crimean experience

A series of cases have become stunning examples of the new reality of the population on the Crimean peninsula. On May 6, 2016, in Simferopol, law-enforcers broke up a rally organized by Crimean Cossacks. The Cossacks were going to protest against the closure of the Cadet Corps in Simferopol. But they didn’t manage to do that. Since the rally organizers hadn’t obtained permission from the local authorities permission to hold the rally, law-enforcers detained the participants.

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Then, in Alushta, Russian police separated the participants of a protest rally against building an amusement park ride on the embankment, obstructing the view of the waterfront to the sea and closing the path to it.

About 50 people participated in that rally which began early on Saturday, June 4.

The law-enforcers who showed up at the rally detained the organizers of the event and took them to the police station. Pavel Stepanchenko, MP and organizer of the rally, was also among the detainees. He was released from the police station 7 hours later. His clothes were torn into pieces and he had some bruises on his back.

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Andrey Bubeyev, sentenced to 2,3 years for a publication on social media. A photo from Bubeyevs’ personal archive

Persecution of Crimeans not supporting the annexation

The Crimean Tatars are facing trial under Russian legislation in the so-called ‘February 26’ case. It was on February 26, 2014 that the Crimean Tatars rallied outside the Crimean Parliament in support of the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Following the annexation of Crimea, Ahtem Chiygoz, Ali Asanov and Mustafa Degermenji, were accused of organizing mass outcries during the pro-Ukrainian rallies in the territory of Ukraine. Today, the court hearings continue, while the arrestees have been kept in a pre-trial detention facility for over a year.

Following this, after the Russian leadership came into power on the peninsula, there have been mass arrests and trials of Crimean Muslims in what is known as the ‘Hizb ut-Tahrir case’.

‘Hizb ut-Tahrir’ is a radical pan-Islamic organization, recognized as a terrorist organization in Russia. Mass criminal proceedings are currently being carried out on the peninsula against Crimean Muslims who have allegedly been organizing in their cells and supporting ‘Hizb ut-Tahrir’ on the peninsula.

However, Russian investigative agencies have failed to collect a sufficient base of evidence and, as the human rights activists claim, the Crimean Muslims have been arrested merely for the kitchen talk and their civic views.

Now, after the introduction of the Yarovaya legal amendments, the number of arrests is going to considerably increase, since the Russian invasion of Crimea, as well as illegal arrests and searches in Crimean Muslims’ houses, is still a major theme for discussion for the Crimean Tatars,” states Abdureshit Djepparov, coordinator of the Crimean Human Rights Group.

«They will be intercepting communications on social media and in public places, since everything will be regarded as criminal offences. There are 400,000 Crimean Tatars on the Crimean peninsula and each of us may be a criminal, since only a few people here do not discuss this issue. And as for our communications, it is all about the changes that each of us expects for ourselves. In our understanding, the changes are an attempt to change what we currently have.

We are not satisfied with the regime or with the jurisdiction, and this really means something. It’s bad and it was far from being good as things were. It’s happened in a way that part of the population supported the Russian side. This being the case, they will be happy to communicate, inform and report,” says Djepparov. 

Long before the ‘Yarovaya’s amendments’, even screenshots from social media screenshots were a pretext to issue warnings to Ukrainian activists in regard to alleged countermeasures against extremism.

This was the case on the evening before Ukrainian writer, Taras Shevchenko’s birthday. According to Leonid Kuzmin, a Ukrainian Cultural Center (UCC) activist, in March Simferopol authorities banned a rally on Kobzar’s (edit.. a bard, poet) birthday. 

Subsequently, UCC activists received a warning from the Russian-controlled prosecutor’s office, saying it was unacceptable to hold any kind of rallies at the monument of T.G. Shevchenko in Simferopol on March 9, 2016. A Facebook message was the reason for issuing this warning. 

“They permanently track any information published on Facebook. An official from the prosecutor’s office provided a link with my web-publication on it, in which I called on people to go out into the street in Simferopol on Shevchenko’s anniversary,” says Kuzmin.

The Russian experience

People in Russia already know what it means to spend 2 years in prison for speaking out on the Internet.

On May 6, 2016, Andrey Bubeyev, a blogger from Tver, was sentenced to 2 years and 3 months in penal colony for publishing on his VKpage an article under Boris Stomakhin’s by-line: ‘Crimea is Ukraine’, as well a picture of a hand squeezing toothpaste from a tube, with the inscription: “Squeeze Russia out of yourself.”

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People can be arrested in Russia for more than just making pro-Ukrainian statements or for speaking out against the annexation of Crimea. Criticizm of the government maybe also be regarded as extremism in Russia and in the territory annexed by it.

For example, Andrey Tyumentsev, a video-blogger and a public activist from Tomsk, was sentenced to 5 years in a “general-regime” colony. The reason for instituting criminal proceedings against him was the publication of two video clips on Youtube and on Tyumentsev’s personal VK page: “The Day of the People’s Wrath in Tomsk against Officials’ Indifference” and “The Residents of Donetsk and Lugansk regions – Get out of Tomsk!”

According to Anastasia Bubeyeva, convict Andrey Bubeyev’s wife, the general public in Russia has been widely discussing Yarovaya’s new legal amendments, namely the issue of toughening the punishment for charges of extremism.

The wordings of these articles are still rather vague, so no one in Russia can say with certainty what exactly a person may be liable for. 

“The number of criminal cases tried under these so-called political articles has reached an enormous amount over the past year. In my opinion, their task now is to smother any political activity of the population on the Internet, including that on social media.

The new laws and trials of ordinary citizens are nothing but acts of intimidation. They are creating a sense of fear for any self-expression in the population. In the Russian Federation, they already send people to prison for peaceful protests, for non-standard art, for communication and any political overtones displayed in all these things.

The new legislative amendments will merely expand the powers of law-enforcement, making an investigators’ work easier and, at the same time, in many ways complicating every citizen’s private live. This is certainly a matter of concern for Crimeans, who now live under Russian law. Any initiative may be punished in this country,” Anastasia Bubeyeva believes. 

Initially published: 11.07.2016
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