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A file photo of a member of the local security forces standing guard outside the offices of the Crimean Tatar's Mejlis in Simferopol. The Tatar community on the Black Sea peninsula have complained of discrimination and harassment since the territory was forcibly annexed by Russia in 2014.

The Russian Justice Ministry has suspended the Crimean Tatars' highest ruling body due to what it called "extremist activities," a fresh escalation in Moscow's crackdown against a group that has broadly opposed Russia's forcible annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

The ministry said in an April 18 statement that the Mejlis, the self-governing Crimean Tatar body legalized by the Ukrainian government in 1999, had been included in a federal list of civic and religious organizations suspended due to alleged extremism.

Tatars make up around 12 percent of Crimea's population of 2.5 million. Many fled the Black Sea peninsula after its military seizure by Russia in March 2014. Others who remained have complained of harassment or even disappearances under the Moscow-backed authorities there.

International rights groups and Western governments have issued searing criticism of Russia's treatment of the Turkic-speaking Muslim group since the annexation.

The ministry's action now prohibits the Mejlis from using state-owned media, holding public gatherings, participating in elections, and using bank accounts for anything other than paying off taxes, debts, or other financial penalties.

The ministry said the move was based on an April 13 order by Crimea's Moscow-backed prosecutor, Natalya Poklonskaya, to suspend the council.

Ukraine's Foreign Ministry called Poklonskaya's order "a violation of fundamental rights and freedoms in the peninsula," while international rights watchdog Amnesty International said the decision signals a new wave of repression against Crimean Tatars.

"Anyone associated with the Mejlis could now face serious charges of extremism as a result of this ban, which is aimed at snuffing out the few remaining voices of dissent in Crimea," Denis Krivosheyev, Amnesty International's deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, said in an April 13 statement.

A U.S. State Department official told RFE/RL on April 18: "We are deeply disturbed by these reports. Banning the Mejlis Council, the body representing the region's Tatar ethnic minority, would remove what little representation and recourse the Tatars have left under Russian occupation.

"Crimean Tatars face repression and discrimination in Russian-occupied Crimea. Almost 10,000 Crimean Tatars have been forced to flee their homeland. Those who remain have been subjected to abuses, including interrogations, beatings, arbitrary detentions, and police raids on their homes and mosques. These brutalities and human rights abuses must end."

The Mejlis has refused to recognize Russia's takeover of Crimea, which triggered a wave of Western sanctions against Moscow, and played a key role in the consolidation of efforts on behalf of Crimean Tatars.

The council was led for many years by the veteran leader of the Crimean Tatars, Soviet-era dissident Mustafa Dzhemilev. Since November 2013, the Mejlis has been led by Refat Chubarov.

Dzhemilev and Chubarov, both Ukrainian lawmakers, have been barred from entering Crimea for five years by Crimea's Moscow-backed leadership.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation In Europe issued a report in September saying that, since Russia's land grab, fundamental freedoms have "deteriorated radically" for many in Crimea, especially for pro-Ukrainian activists, journalists, and the Crimean Tatar community.

In its annual human rights report issued last week, the U.S. State Department criticized what it portrayed as a broad range of rights violations against Crimean Tatars, including "systematic discrimination" and "physical abuse and beatings" by "Russian occupying forces."

Russian President Vladimir Putin last year suggested that foreign countries were funding efforts to "destabilize the situation" by highlighting difficulties faced by Crimean Tatars, and said that Moscow would not allow this.

Aleksandr Bastrykin, the head of Russia's Investigative Committee of Russia (file photo)

Russia’s top investigative official has called for a sweeping new approach toward political protests, internal dissent, and the media, warning that a "hybrid war unleashed by the U.S. and its allies" has entered the phase of "open confrontation."

The comments by Aleksandr Bastrykin, published on April 18 in the magazine Kommersant Vlast, were some of the most strident to date by officials in the top echelons of the Russian government.

They also echo earlier statements by President Vladimir Putin himself, and other allies, that reflect hardening thinking by the Kremlin toward many of the democratic, and possibly economic, reforms implemented since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the magazine piece, Bastrykin, who heads the Russia’s Investigative Committee, said the "destructive" influence of the United States needed to be counteracted, and he proposed new rights restrictions on Russian society.

“Over the past decade, Russia, as well as a series of other countries, has lived under the conditions of a hybrid war unleashed by the United States and its allies,” he wrote. “The war is being conducted along many fronts: political, economic, informational, as well as legal. Moreover, in recent years, this has entered a qualitatively new phase of open confrontation.”

“Unfortunately, the weapons used in this war with increasing frequency have become that of international law and the justice based on it,” he said.

As evidence, Bastrykin, who is considered an ally of Putin if not a member of his inner circle, cited a series of arbitration rulings in the case of the Yukos oil company, which was broken up and its assets sold off to state-run Russian companies in a series of controversial auctions in the early 2000s. Recent arbitration rulings in European courts have awarded billions to former shareholders, and in some locations, courts have ordered Russian government assets seized.

He cited the case of former FSB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko; blame for his murder in 2006 in London was pinned on the Russian government by a British judge. And he pointed to the findings of the Dutch Safety Board which suggested Russian involvement, or knowledge, of the missile that downed a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine in July 2014, killing all 298 people on board.

Other examples of "legal weapons," he said, included the U.S. corruption investigation of world soccer's governing body, FIFA, and the prosecution in U.S. federal court of Russians arms smuggler Viktor Bout.

Bastrykin proposed criminalizing criticism of Russia's annexation of the Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula in 2014, something that has been condemned by the European Union, the United States, and others. And he suggested Chinese-style restrictions on the Internet such as blocking access to foreign media.

He also accused the United States of funding opposition parties and stirring up the recent fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, the enclave in Azerbaijan that Baku and Yerevan continue to fight over.

Since returning to the presidency in 2012, Putin has retained widespread popularity in Russia, particularly since the annexation of Crimea and the more recent military campaign in Syria. But there are signs that the Kremlin fears growing discontent, particularly as the country’s economy stagnates.

With parliamentary elections scheduled for September, government officials have proposed or implemented new policies aimed at restricting the influence of independent nongovernment organizations.

Earlier this month, Putin announced the creation of a new National Guard, headed by his former bodyguard, whose ranks would include riot police and rapid reaction police units. Many experts interpreted the move as aimed at suppressing internal dissent.

Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University who studies Russian security services, said that Bastrykin’s article might be "a manifesto for Russia’s comprehensive declaration of independence from the world."

"Bastrykin’s manifesto might represent not just the fulminations of an authoritarian out of step with the mainstream, but an attempt to pitch ideas to a Kremlin contemplating an authoritarian turn," he wrote in a blog post.

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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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