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Crimean Attorneys Don’t Have It Easy

After the Russian annexation, few Crimean law professionals are eager to take on sensitive, politically charged cases. From Euroradio.

by Ales Pilecki and Zmicier Lukashuk 24 April 2017

Three years after the March 2014 events, the Kremlin insists that Crimea is part of the Russian Federation. Kyiv’s official stance is that the Crimean peninsula is a temporarily occupied territory. Crimean activists, politicians, and citizens who oppose the annexation of Crimea have been tried for violating Russian law. The Russian organization Memorial considers them political prisoners or prisoners of conscience. Given the legal status of the peninsula, attorneys cannot prove they are not guilty or perform their professional duties in general without difficulty.

 

We meet lawyer Emil Kurbedinov next to his small office in the center of Crimea’s capital, Simferopol. We have to talk in the street, as his clients took all the free seats in his office. People come to him with different issues asking for help, but Kurbedinov prefers to defend those detained on political charges, such as those people who do not think that Crimea is Russian. As a result, the lawyer recently spent 10 days under administrative arrest. Policemen searched his office and seized documents containing classified judicial information. This happened because Kurbedinov dared to use his phone to film a search that took place in the office of one of his fellow citizens. Before that, the lawyer had received hints from “high-ranking people” that he should quit legal practice.

 

“From the very beginning we tried to shed light on all cases we considered politically motivated,” Kurbedinov explains. “We wanted people, both here and abroad, to see how trials took place, how the evidence was presented, and so on. That bothered very much those who held the trials, the prosecution.”

 

Among Kurbedinov’s clients are leaders of the Mejlis [the Crimean parliament outlawed by Russia as an “extremist” organization in 2016] who have been accused of calls to “violate the territorial integrity of Russia.” He also defends participants in the protest “For a United Ukraine” that took place in Simferopol on 26 February 2014 (before its annexation), as well as members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization declared terrorist by Russian authorities.

 

Political Cases Bring Headache, Not Profit

 

Emil Kurbedinov: The outcomes of the trials are clear from the start. However, from the very beginning, we decided to take such cases and bring to light their legal inconsistencies. Right after the verdict is announced, we file an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights since we do not expect positive results here on the territory of Russia. [We do that] to prove these cases are politically motivated; to that aim, we need to reveal their legal inconsistencies. That is why we are accurate in our work. It has to be obvious from the start that these cases have no legal base and do not rely on facts.

 

Emil Kurbedinov. Photo via Euroradio.fm.

 

Euroradio: I assume remunerations for such litigations are not high. Why do you take them?

 

Emil Kurbedinov: I see it as my duty. I am doing my job, not violating anything. I do not think it is right to avoid such cases just because someone harasses you. Please understand, we do not want to leave this place [Crimea], so we need to do something to protect our rights.

 

Euroradio: And are there many attorneys like you?

 

Emil Kurbedinov: At first we had trouble finding attorneys, lawyers, and human rights activists willing to take on politically sensitive cases. Now it is the opposite: lawyers eagerly partake in such cases. I am no longer alone. We have around 10 defense lawyers. If we got into it to make money, we would have been in trouble now.

 

Euroradio: There were instances of pro-Ukrainian activists disappearing. Are you not afraid that the same will happen to lawyers?

 

Emil Kurbedinov: It might happen. We do not rule it out. But what answer do you expect from me?

 

Euroradio: Are you afraid or not?

 

Emil Kurbedinov: Of course I am afraid! I am a human being, after all. But I have certain principles. I am a Muslim, and I think that my life, my fate, and my health are neither in their hands [the authorities], nor in the papers of those people, nor in their [legal] sentences. My fellow countrymen live here, I live here, and I must restore order.

 

Euroradio: Does it matter if you defend a Tatar or a Ukrainian? Will you ever defend in court a pro-Russian activist?

 

Emil Kurbedinov: Nationality and faith do not matter to me. Currently, I work on the case of [Ukrainian journalist] Mykola Semena. But I believe that everyone has the right to protection, including pro-Russian activists. It only matters that trials are fair.

 

The Worst Russian Practices Take Root in Crimea

 

Nikolai Polozov has been specializing in politically sensitive cases for a long time. In Russia, he defended [prominent opposition politician] Alexei Navalny, [feminist punk group] Pussy Riot, [political activist] Sergei Udaltsov, as well as captured Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko. Over the past year, this Russian lawyer has been working in Crimea. Polozov is currently working on the defense of the deputy chairman of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, Akhtem Chyyhoz. Polozov worked as an attorney for another deputy head of the Mejlis, Ilmi Umerov. However, all of a sudden, the investigators in charge of the case changed his status from lawyer to witness, so he had to withdraw. “For now I am considered a witness, but who knows what they will do next,” Polozov says bitterly.

 

We meet not far from the Supreme Court of Crimea, where Chyyhoz’s trial is taking place. The hearing just ended, and the lawyer has gone out to meet supporters of the defendant who put food on the benches in the park and offered tea to those who came to show their solidarity with the deputy head of the Mejlis.

 

We asked the lawyer to compare politically sensitive cases in “mainland” Russia to those in the peninsula.

 

Nikolai Polozov: All bad law enforcement practices from Russia are actively introduced in Crimea. However, there are some local specifics. It is not a secret that many officials, judges, prosecutors, and police officers are citizens of Ukraine who have sworn allegiance to Russia. For example, two judges who used to work in this court before the annexation now handle the Chyyhoz case. But these Crimeans do not fully feel if they are citizens of Russia, and many, especially those in power, are ready to do whatever it takes to prove that they are real Russians and faithful supporters of the Russian government. This puts additional pressure on the persecuted people.

 

Nikolai Polozov. Photo via Euroradio.fm.

 

Polozov complains about the lack of balanced media coverage of the situation in Crimea. According to him, Russian independent media rarely visit the peninsula, while pro-governmental publications do not notice any human rights issues. Ukrainian journalists do not come here because they risk being arrested on espionage charges. We were told that we were the first Belarusian journalists to come here since the annexation.

 

Polozov thinks that this information vacuum and lack of political support from the Ukrainian side, in particular for Crimean Tatar cases, are the main obstacles in his work – well, leaving the Russian judicial system aside.

 

Nikolai Polozov: Not a single person has been acquitted in politically sensitive cases in Russia. They can declare amnesty and pardon people, but they always pronounce them guilty first. I don't have illusions that the Chyyhoz case will be different. But the work in the courts is only at the bottom of the pyramid. Now, I am building a platform. Later we will add to it a political dimension and that will strengthen our position to negotiate a release.”

 

Polozov hopes that his work on that “dimension” will not be in vain, and Chyyhoz will be set free.

 

That, in turn, could create a precedent and help other people who are convicted on political charges in Crimea.

Ales Pilecki and Zmicier Lukashuk are staff correspondents of the Minsk-based European Radio for Belarus (ERB). They traveled to Crimea in March 2017. The original version of this article, in Russian, was published on the ERB website. TOL has done some editing to fit our style. Reprinted with permission.

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