Major Russian NGOs have addressed an important appeal to two UN Special Rapporteurs over Russia’s violation of the right to religious freedom and freedom of association through its persecution of Muslims on trumped up charges. While the appeal focuses on the flawed nature of Russia’s prosecutions in general, these are increasingly being used in occupied Crimea as a weapon to silence civic activists and journalists and terrorize Crimean Tatars.
The collective appeal, lodged by the Memorial Human Rights Centre and NGO ‘For Human Rights’ is on behalf of Muslims whom Russian courts have convicted of involvement in the transnational Hizb ut-Tahrir movement and sentenced to huge terms of imprisonment, without any crime or call to violence. The NGOs have turned to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights [OHCHR] Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association because Russia’s abuse of a flawed, and probably politically motivated Supreme Court ruling from 2003 has already led to hundreds of lives being crushed and the situation is getting even worse.
The authors of the appeal explain that Muslims are charged under Russia’s terrorism legislation with real or supposed involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, purely on the basis of a highly suspect Russian Supreme Court ruling, from 14 February 2003, which declared the organization ‘terrorist’. The ruling was passed behind closed doors, with neither Hizb ut-Tahrir members, nor human rights NGOs given a chance to make submissions. No information was then made available until it was too late to lodge an appeal, although the Supreme Court gave no sensible explanation and Hizb ut-Tahrir is not known to have committed, or even threatened, acts of terrorism or violence in Russia or anywhere else in the world.
Despite the lack of any evidence of real terrorism, “military courts are sentencing peaceful citizens to terms of imprisonment ranging up to 24 years.”
Such prosecutions of Muslims for alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir are a flagrant violation, the authors say, of the right to freedom of religion and of freedom of association. They also infringe the rights enshrined in Articles 18; 19; 21; and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The NGOs ask the OHCHR Special Rapporteurs to point out to the Russian Government “and other federal subjects” that it is violation of human rights to illegally and unwarrantedly prosecute members of Hizb ut-Tahrir purely on the basis of the Supreme Court ruling for organizing meetings; drawing other people into their activities or studying Hizb ut-Tahrir literature.
They are asked to demand an end to such illegal arrests and prosecutions and that measures are taken “to reinstate the violated rights of members of Hizb ut-Tahrir”.
The NGOs also ask them to report to the UN Human Rights Committee on communications sent and responses received in order to increase public awareness about such ‘Hizb ut-Tahrir cases’.
Memorial HRC has long criticized the 2003 Supreme Court ruling and pointed to the evidently inadequate three ‘reasons’ provided, namely that Hizb ut-Tahrir has as its objective the establishment of a world Caliphate; that its main form of activity is what it calls “militant Islamic propaganda” and that it is banned in Uzbekistan and some Arab countries. This does not even remotely fit Russia’s definition of terrorism and cannot be grounds for arrests, prosecution and huge sentences on ‘terrorist’ charges. The NGO considers all those who have been convicted solely of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir to be political prisoners.
With respect to the ever-mounting number of such arrests in Crimea under Russian occupation, Memorial HRC seldom even waits for the essentially predetermined ‘guilty’ verdict to declare Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian Muslims political prisoners. The reasons lie not only in the flawed nature of the charges, but in the fact that Russia is an occupying power and as such is in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention by applying its repressive legislation in occupied Crimea. The situation is particularly shocking as Hizb ut-Tahrir is perfectly legal in Ukraine.
Since the second wave of arrests of Crimean Muslims in February 2016, Russia has targeted civic and human rights activists and civic journalists, with the repression clearly aimed at silencing those who report on repression in occupied Crimea, especially activists from the important Crimean Solidarity civic initiative. This became totally brazen in March 2019 and soon afterwards when 25 Crimean Tatar civic journalists and activists were seized. That mass ‘operation’ was very widely condemned, with Human Rights Watch stating that “the sweeping arrests in Crimea aim to portray politically active Crimean Tatars as terrorists as a way to silence them” and the men’s release demanded by, among others, the European Parliament and US State Department. The Russian FSB are also quite openly using the threat of such armed arrests and near guaranteed massive sentences to drive Crimean Tatars out of their homeland.
Over 80 Ukrainian Muslims are illegally charged under Russian ‘terrorism’ legislation, either with ‘organizing’ a Hizb ut-Tahrir group, or with involvement in one. Since the arrest of human rights activist Emir-Usein Kuku and five other recognized Amnesty International prisoners of conscience in February 2016, it has become standard for the FSB to add the charge of ‘planning an armed uprising’, with this also based purely on some theoretical idea about the future aims of Hizb ut-Tahrir.
The ‘trials’ themselves are a travesty of justice. The Russian FSB uses illicitly taped conversations about religion; politics, including Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its mounting persecution of Muslims; about bringing up children, etc. as alleged ‘evidence’. These are sent to so-called ‘experts’ who invariably claim that the use of a certain word, for example, is ‘proof’ of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir.
The ‘trials’ are also based, almost exclusively, on the ‘testimony’ of anonymous witnesses. There is no attempt to provide reasons for keeping these individuals’ identity secret and no way of verifying their words. ‘Judges’ at the Southern District Military Court in Rostov (Russia) always reject applications for the men’s identity to be revealed and ignore glaring discrepancies and, for example, the fact that their testimony changes in line with changes in the indictment.
Although the charges are always identical, the sentences have been steadily increasing, with the 25 civic journalists and activists now ‘on trial’ facing sentences of up to 20 years’ imprisonment