Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Human Rights Under Threat in Crimea

Interview with Ukrainian human rights activist Maryna Tsapok.
By Daniella Peled

Maryna Tsapok of the Association of Ukrainian Human Rights Monitors on Law Enforcement has told IWPR editor Daniella Peled about the particular risks now facing people in Crimea as well as human rights developments in Ukraine generally. 

What abuses did your organisation observe during the months of unrest in Kiev?

Since November, we have seen many human rights violations in the course of our work. There is a legal framework governing the use of force in cases of unrest, but the police violated all these rules, for instance, by using water cannons in sub-zero temperatures. They used non-lethal weapons such as rubber bullets, which should be used to stop aggressive people by shooting at their legs. Instead, police targeted faces and a lot of people lost eyes. Some police prepared their own Molotov cocktails to throw at protestors.

The terrible events of February 18-20 saw police use live fire, and up to now we have documented the deaths of 100 protestors. Of these, 87 were killed during the three days of violence and the rest have since died of their wounds. In addition, 16 police officers were killed.

There is varying information as to the number of civilians injured. The official figure is around 1,000 but the unofficial version, based on the medical services which were operating in Maidan Square, is around 2,000. A lot of people were afraid to go to hospital for treatment in case they were seized by the police, so they didn’t seek formal medical treatment.

Are there fears that ultranationalists will gain political power in Kiev?

It’s not the issue right now. No one is talking about ultranationalists because everything is quiet in Kiev. There have been scary pictures on Russian television but in reality the nationalists have not been attacking people, The Svoboda party is in government but we don’t have any proof of human rights violations by them.

It is the case, though, that people are not happy about the government that has been formed, and they want better, more professional ministers. We hope after the situation has improved in Crimea – if it does – then we can ask for change after elections.

We are now worried about Crimea.

What is the current human rights situation in Crimea?

The situation in Crimea is terrible. Armed men are blocking Ukrainian soldiers inside their bases and patrolling Ukrainian cities. They are officially unidentified but everyone understands they are Russian soldiers, just without identifying signs. We have a situation where Ukrainian soldiers are blockaded inside their units, with Russian soldiers pressuring them to surrender and leave.

There are also groups calling themselves “self-defence forces”, unarmed but wearing uniforms, who are acting like soldiers and coordinating with the Russian troops.

On Wednesday, OSCE observers were stopped from entering Crimea by these self-defence groups, who advised them to leave and did not let them meet local people.

The Tatars in Crimea are also under pressure and afraid of what might happen. They do not support Russia, and are also considered as enemies by the self-defence groups.

The current prime minister of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, is not under the authority of Kiev and was not legally elected. However, he is now in control of the police, rather than their superiors in Kiev.

We can say for sure that the right to expression is being violated in Crimea. All independent journalists are facing pressure. The main TV channels have been blocked and replaced by Russian channels. Journalists reporting on anti-Russian protests are being scared off by self-defence groups and there are violations of the freedom of assembly.

If you don’t support Putin or Aksyonov you can’t protest – or you are attacked by the self-defence groups.

I was in Simferopol yesterday and saw a group of women trying to stage an anti-war protest near a military base, and a self-defence group scared them off as well as the journalists who were trying to report on it.

Daniella Peled is an IWPR editor in London.

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