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Trial Postponed For Crimean Journalist Charged With Separatism

  • RFE/RL

If convicted, Mykola Semena could face up to five years in prison.

A preliminary hearing into the "separatism" case against journalist Mykola Semena, an RFE/RL contributor who has angered Moscow over his reporting, has been postponed.

Semena, who has been charged by the Moscow-backed authorities, was to have a preliminary hearing in Simferopol, Ukraine, on February 17 but it has been moved to February 28, RFE/RL's Crimea Realities reported.

The postponement of the hearing was reportedly due to one of Semena's lawyers not being able to prepare for the hearing because his computer had previously been confiscated and only returned to him on February 17.

Meanwhile, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has urged authorities in the Russian-controlled Ukrainian region of Crimea to drop all charges against Semena.

In a February 16 statement, CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said that "criticizing authorities is not a crime" and called on the Russian-backed authorities to "stop harassing journalists in Crimea."

Semena was detained in April and then released but ordered not to leave the peninsula. He may be sentenced to five years in prison if convicted of separatism based on an article he wrote on his blog that was critical of Moscow's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

After Moscow seized control of Crimea, the Russian parliament passed a law making it a criminal offense to question Russia's territorial integrity within what the government considers its borders.

Semena was given a final version of the charges in December and was served on January 20 with the closing indictment in his case, a detailed document that includes descriptions of evidence, the names of prosecution witnesses, and other information.

Semena denies the charges.

Semena's lawyer, Andrei Sabinin, had said that preliminary hearings into the case would be held by the Zaliznychnyy district court in Simferopol on February 17. The journalist's other lawyer, Emil Kurbedinov, told RFE/RL on February 8 that the actual trial for Semena will start on February 28.

The United States, the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and international media watchdogs have expressed concern over Semena's case, which activists say is part of a Russian clampdown on independent media and dissent in Crimea.

Human rights advocates say Russia and the authorities Moscow has imposed in Crimea have conducted a persistent campaign of oppression targeting opponents of the annexation, including many members of the region's indigenous Crimean Tatars, as well as independent media outlets and journalists.

RFE/RL President Thomas Kent said in January that the charges against Semena were "part of a concerted effort by Russian and Russian-backed authorities to obstruct RFE/RL's journalistic mission to provide an independent press to residents of Crimea."

The Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged Russian authorities on January 26 to drop the "absurd" charges against Semena, saying he "simply expressed his opinion on the annexation of Crimea."

"In no way should he be prosecuted for that," Johann Bihr, the head of RSF's Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, told RFE/RL. He said that Semena's case was "more proof of the suppression of freedom of expression in Crimea since the Russian annexation."

In a resolution adopted on January 24, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) called on Russia to drop its charges against Semena and two other journalists it said were being prosecuted "for their reports about the illegal occupation and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by the Russian Federation."

Also on January 24, the OSCE's media-freedom representative, Dunja Mijatovic, expressed concern about what her office called the "persecution" of Semena, a contributor to RFE/RL's Crimea Realities website.

"The case of Semena reminds us all of the arbitrary practice of silencing critical voices in Crimea," Mijatovic said. "It is totally unacceptable to persecute the journalist for expressing his views. I call for all charges against Semena to be dropped."

Russia seized control of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 after sending in troops to secure key facilities and staging a referendum dismissed as illegitimate by Ukraine, the United States, and more than 100 countries in the UN General Assembly.

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