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Video Shows Raid On Crimean Tatar Business
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The European Parliament in Strasbourg has overwhelmingly adopted a resolution condemning Russia for its treatment of the Crimean Tatar population in the Ukrainian region of Crimea, which was annexed by Moscow in 2014.

"I think it is fitting and adequate that this parliament comes together in a joint resolution to highlight the human rights situation in the occupied Crimean territories," MEP Reinhard Butikofer, of Germany's Green Party, told RFE/RL on February 4. "In particular, the Crimean Tatars have been persecuted from the very beginning of the Russian invasion.”

The resolution "strongly condemns the unprecedented levels of human rights abuses perpetuated against Crimean residents, most notably Crimean Tatars, who do not follow the imposed rule of the so-called local authorities." It also calls on Russia to grant international institutions and human rights monitors "unimpeded access" to the region.

Crimean Tatars, who were deported en masse from Crimea by the Soviet authorities in 1944 and only allowed to begin returning home in the late 1980s, number about 240,000 on the Black Sea peninsula and comprise about 10 percent of its population.

The overwhelming majority of Crimean Tatars have refused to recognize Russia's annexation of the region, which followed a military occupation and a referendum deemed illegitimate by 100 countries in a UN vote.

Tensions have been particularly high since last autumn, when Crimean Tatar-led activists on the mainland side of the administrative line between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine blocked cargo transport to the peninsula. Unknown activists also repeatedly sabotaged power pylons supplying electricity to Crimea, causing widespread outages.

Crimean Tatar activists said they were determined to draw attention to human rights violations on the peninsula and the disappearances of Crimean Tatars who they say have been abducted by Russian security forces.

Under pressure from the activists, the Ukrainian government made the trade blockade official in November.

In recent days, the Russia-installed authorities in Crimea have stepped up their pressure even more.

In the early morning hours of February 2, men identifying themselves as officials of Russia's Federal Migration Service knocked on Elzara Abdulzhelilova's door in the Crimean city of Feodosia for a "passport check."

Mustafa Dzhemilev
Mustafa Dzhemilev

Abdulzhelilova is the daughter of longtime Crimean Tatar national leader Mustafa Dzhemilev, a deputy in the Ukrainian parliament who Russian authorities have barred from entering Crimea for five years.

She told RFE/RL that the officials wanted to take her son, Erol, away "for a talk," but that they left after her lawyers advised her by telephone that they did not have the authority to do so.

"In our view, they did not have a legal basis for carrying out these actions," Nariman Dzhelyal, deputy chairman of the Crimean Tatar executive body, the Mejlis, told RFE/RL. "One of the officers reportedly said as he was leaving that they'll 'find another way' to get to the relatives of Mustafa Dzhemilev."

In January, Dzhemilev's wife, Safinar, was summoned to the prosecutor's office for questioning.

Dzhemilev's son, Khaiser Dzhemilev, is serving a 3 1/2 year prison term in Russia on a conviction stemming from the shooting death of a friend in 2013. Mustafa Dzhemilev maintains his son's innocence and says he is being held by Moscow "as a hostage."

The same day, Crimean Tatar authorities reported "mass searches" of homes in the Dzhankoy district of Crimea. Those searches followed similar actions by police on January 28 in the Lenin district. On January 29, police raided the Islamic cultural center in Simferopol, the Crimean capital.

Agents of Russia's Federal Security Service have carried out raids at the homes of several Mejlis members since the beginning of the year.

On February 1, police raided the Simferopol headquarters of the company SimSitiTrans, which is owned by the father of the vice president of the World Congress of Crimean Tatars, Lenur Islyamov. Islyamov coordinated the cargo blockade against the peninsula and served as the spokesman for the activists.

"This pressure has been going on now for two years," Islyamov told RFE/RL. "It is moving from a 'soft' scenario to a harsh one. Under various pretexts, they want to take away everything that I have. They understand that they can't get to me, so they are going after my weak spots."

Islyamov, the owner of Crimea's Crimean Tatar-language ATR television station, has been the object of an arrest warrant in Crimea since November. ATR was forced to stop broadcasting in Crimea in April 2015.

"Let them take everything they want," he added. "Let them take away all our homes and property. I don't care. We will get it back. When we are able to come back, we will get everything back. This only makes us stronger."

Based on reporting by RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Rikard Jozwiak and the Crimean Desk of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service
Activist Urges EU To Keep Political Pressure On Belarus
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BRUSSELS -- A leading Belarusian opposition activist says the European Union must continue to pressure the ex-Soviet country's authoritarian president over his record on human rights and civil liberties despite a thaw between Minsk and Brussels.

Ales Byalyatski, who spent nearly three years in prison following a tax-evasion conviction his supporters call politically motivated, said in a February 3 interview that he hopes the current rapprochement between the EU and the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka will yield more than lip service.

"We expect from the European Union political pressure on Belarusian authorities with the aim of finally expanding the space for democracy and human rights in Belarus," he told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.

Byalyatski and Belarusian media freedom activist Zhanna Litvina spoke to RFE/RL in Brussels, where they were lobbying EU officials ahead of the bloc's upcoming decision whether to lift sanctions against Minsk.

In late October, the EU temporarily suspended its sanctions against 170 Belarusian officials and three companies it had introduced several years ago in the wake of a crackdown against democratic and civil institutions in Belarus.

That suspension is set to expire on February 29, after which the sanctions could be lifted altogether. All 28 EU member states would have to agree to prolong the sanctions in order to keep them in place.

The independent Belarusian news agency Belapan quoted a spokesperson for the EU's Foreign Affairs Council as saying that foreign ministers would discuss Belarus on February 15.

In suspending the sanctions in October, the EU said the move was made in response to the release of "all Belarusian political prisoners" on August 22 and "in the context of improving EU-Belarus relations," adding that it will "continue to closely monitor the situation of democracy and human rights in Belarus."

Byalyatski, who was honored by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe with its annual Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize in 2013, said the united view of Belarusian rights groups was that since Lukashenka's release of the prisoners, "no other changes in Belarus are happening."

"We are only hearing beautiful words from Belarusian diplomats about their readiness for cooperation [with the West]," he said. "Indeed, they have finally started communicating with European officials. Nevertheless, we are witnessing no actions in Belarus itself to improve the standing of democracy."

Litvina said there had been no improvements in press freedoms, and that the situation could only improve if the government relaxed its monopoly on the media.

Lukashenka has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994 and won a fifth term in October in an election that Western monitors determined was neither free nor fair. He has repeatedly dismissed international criticism of his authoritarian rule and his government's rights record.

Litvina said EU officials should also pay close attention to the country's parliamentary elections in September. She called the vote a chance for the Belarusian government and the entire society to hold a real campaign for change according to generally accepted rules of conduct.

"Belarus needs to reject the very principle of vote fixing for the benefit of one person or a number of people. Democratic principles and mechanisms need to be put to work in Belarus," she said.

Lukashenka's role in facilitating the February 2015 deal in Minsk to bring a cease-fire between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine has also improved his government's relations with the West.

Lukashenka has rebuffed Russian pressure to recognize Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, a land grab that triggered waves of Western sanctions against Moscow.

Byalyatski said, however, that this was a small departure from Lukashenka's Moscow-oriented foreign policy during his 22-year reign.

The Belarusian president is "at the very core a post-Soviet dictator," Byalyatski said, who feels "more at home in the dictators club" with Russian President Vladimir Putin and "all those Central Asian tsars."

"European democratic society is completely alien to him," he said. "For someone who has spent 22 years watching the outside world through the glass of his presidential limo, it is probably very hard for him to understand what democracy is really all about."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and Belapan

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.


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