COVID-19 and new challenges in Crimea: an online event took place within the framework of United Nations Human Rights Council

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The situation with human rights in the occupied Crimea remains unstable, this lack of stability only intensifies under the circumstance of COVID-19 pandemic.

This was discussed during the online event, organized by human rights defenders as part of the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council. The aim of the event is to inform the member-states and observers of the UN Council ahead of their discussion of the new report on the situation with human rights in Crimea by the General Secretary.

In the beginning of the event Matilda Bogner, the head of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine,  told about the current situation in Crimea and the challenges for human rights, including the application of the Russia’s criminal law in occupied peninsula, problems with administration of justice, including cases with espionage accusations, instances of torture that often take place immediately after arrest and impunity of the perpetrators.

 “Freedom of expression on social media is being further criminalized in Crimea. Interference into the professional activity of journalists is taking place. A number of civil initiatives are constantly facing barriers to hold public gatherings and discussions. We have received information about pressure on owners of property where Crimean Tatar activists were planning to assembly” – she told.

The head of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine separately drew attention to the decree #201 of Russian President Vladimir Putin which prohibits persons without Russian citizenship to own land on a considerable part of the territory of Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol.

11 500 foreign citizens and 9700 citizens of Ukraine own land plots in Crimea, which they now must sell within a year (until March 2021) not to see them nationalized. Such practice is prohibited by international law” – she pointed out.   

Matilda Bogner also added that Ukrainian government, on the other hand, has also failed to materialize some of the UN recommendations, for example, the recommendation to simplify the mechanism of issuing birth or death certificates to Crimeans.

Olga Skrypnyk (Head of Board, Crimean Human Rights Group) informed members and observers of the UN Human Rights Council about the deteriorating situation with human rights during the pandemic in Crimea. 

According to the words of the human rights defender, the official numbers of the COVID-19 cases are far from correct and the level of diagnosing in the peninsula remains low. For instance, there is still no data available on the number of cases among Russian Army and among police in Crimea.

Olga Skrypnyk

Ongoing regular passenger flights to and from Moscow, which happens to be the epicenter of COVID-19 distribution in Russia, represent a major factor in COVID-19 spread in Crimea. Just yesterday (June 30, 2020)  38 airplanes landed in Simferopol having departed from Moscow. Persons arriving from Russia are not going through self-isolation period and are not directed to observatories, they are not tested for COVID-19. It is clear that in order to curb the spread of the new coronavirus infection in the peninsula, Russian authorities need to restrict air connection with Crimea, yet this is not done” – underlined Olga Skrypnyk.

She told that despite the recommendations of the WHO not to hold public events and notwithstanding the growing numbers of COVID-19 cases, a number of cities in Crimea hold military parades on June 24th

The human rights defender also noted that Russian Federation introduced new criminal and administrative articles in time of the pandemic, these articles penalize those who fail to exercise quarantine restrictions. “Crimean Human Rights Group has documented almost 7700 administrative cases in Crimea against those, not exercising the “increased readiness regime” with fines being the usual penalties in such cases” – added Skrypnyk.

On a separate note, Olga Skrypnyk has stressed the fact that conditions are deteriorating in detainment centers both in Crimea and Russia, in which Ukrainian prisoners, including the political prisoners, are imprisoned. According to the information that she has, no safety measures were taken and no mass-scale testing is conducted even in the detainment centers of Rostov on Don and Lefortovo, where COVID-19 outbreaks were already documented.

The news of the unacceptable conditions in the detainment centers was also verified by barrister and “Crimean Solidarity” initiative representative Lilia Hemdzhy. For instance, she told about worsening of health of the political prisoners Server Mustafayev and Dzemil Gafarov. She also underlined inadequate healthcare and in particular delivery of individual safety items in the circumstances of COVID-19 pandemic.

On the other hand, Hemedzhy adds, despite the quarantine, the conscription campaign of Crimean to Russian army took place again.

Lilia Hemdzhy

“The ultimate aim of the authorities is scaring and blocking of the active individuals who document human rights violations in Crimea. If one would examine the most recent arrests, one would notice they all have to do either with active civil position or with religious views”  said Hemedzhy.

Journalist and the author of the “Crimea. Realities” project Mykola Semena told about suppression of freedom of media and persecutions of journalists in Crimea. “Only at the end of February, only four months ago, I was able to get out of Crimea, a place in which I worked as a journalist before, and later was forcefully kept in by the occupant authorities” – he said.

According to Semena’s words, following the occupation out of 1.5 thousand register Crimean media outlets, only 150 were left in the peninsula, so the amount of media outlets decreased  10 times. “Loyal editors and reporters were appointed to the media outlets, so were the supervisors form security services, the editors were obligated to consult the supervisors on all matters that were not clear. Ukrainian newspapers and magazines were banned from importing to the peninsula, all Ukrainian TV and Radio outlets were forced to stop broadcasting” – he said.  

Mykola Semena told that because of his 2016 article, in which Crimea was identified as part of Ukraine, he was accused of “calls for violation of territorial integrity of Russia”. This accusation has resulted in a conditional sentence lasting 2.5 years plus a probation term of three years to follow it. The sentence also included prohibition of journalist activity and prohibition of leaving Crimea for two years. Semena was able to leave occupied Crimea only in February 2020.

Mykola Semena

In conclusion, the human rights defenders called on the international community to apply pressure on Russian Federation, also through sanctions, and to demand the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners who happen to be 94 individuals as of today, majority of them are Crimean Tatars.  

Video of the online event can be viewed here.

The event was organized by the Human Rights House Foundation (Oslo / Geneva / Tbilisi), Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (Warsaw),  as well as the Human Rights House Crimea, Crimean Human Rights Group and Human Rights Center ZMINA. It was moderated by Brian Bonner, the editor in chief of KyivPost periodical. The event gathered 70 participants, 45 among them represented delegations of different states, several thousand viewers followed the event via video streaming on social media.