This appeared in Thursday’s Washington Post.
The Trump administration modestly expanded sanctions on Russia on Tuesday in an encouraging sign that it will continue to raise the pressure on the regime of Vladimir Putin for its illegal activity in Ukraine. Eleven of the newly penalized individuals and entities operate in the province of Crimea, which Moscow invaded and annexed in 2014; they include the Russia-designated state prosecutor. Yet according to two leading Crimean human rights activists, no one in the occupied province has been explicitly punished for the sweeping violations of human rights that have occurred there since 2014. That should change.
“When it comes to Crimea, no one is talking about human rights,” said Tetiana Pechonchyk of the Kiev, Ukraine-based Human Rights Center. One reason for that is that Russia has sealed off the territory from the outside world; it is, Pechonchyk told us, “a kind of ghetto where no international organizations have access and there is no independent media.” More than a dozen Crimean news organizations were forced to move out of the province after a number of journalists were persecuted and prosecuted.
Now their websites, and others, are blocked by Crimean authorities. Mykola Semena, a veteran reporter who persisted in writing for the Radio Liberty website Crimea Realities, is on trial on charges of inciting separatism and faces five years in prison.
Even the slightest hint of opposition to Russia’s rule is crushed. A farmer named Vladimir Balukh who flew a Ukrainian flag over his house is being tried on trumped-up weapons charges and could receive four years in prison. But the worst persecution is reserved for members of Crimea’s Tatar ethnic minority. Its principle organization, the Mejlis, has been banned as a terrorist groupand its leaders exiled, jailed or, in one case, forcibly confined to a psychiatric institution. Crimeans are prohibited even from mentioning the Mejlis on social media.
Pechonchyk and Olga Skrypnyk, the exiled board chairman of the Crimean Human Rights Group, arrived in Washington this week with lists of dozens of Russian and Crimean officials implicated in these abuses. One cites more than 70 judges who have ordered unlawful detentions, while another identifies those complicit in repression of the media. The activists would like to see these officials added to those subject to sanctions by the United States and the European Union, including through the use of the Magnitsky Act, which provides for action against officials involved in persecuting human rights activists.
The point of sanctions is not only to punish. Pressure needs to be raised on Moscow until it agrees to international negotiations on its Crimea occupation, like those it has with Ukraine, France and Britain on its military incursion in eastern Ukraine. “Russia is not listening to resolutions,” said Pechonchyk. “The only language Russia understands is sanctions.”