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Journalist Mykola Semena talks to journalists before his court appearance in Simferopol on March 20.

Crimean journalist Mykola Semena has gone on trial on separatism-related charges in the Russian-controlled territory, telling reporters minutes before the hearing that he is innocent.

The judge adjourned the trial on March 20 for two weeks shortly after it got under way, following a motion by the defense to provide for a more open and accessible process by holding it in a larger courtroom. The trial is scheduled to resume on April 3.

Semena, an RFE/RL contributor, is being prosecuted for an article he wrote criticizing Moscow's seizure of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and expressing support for a blockade of the territory initiated by Ukrainian activists.

The trial at a Russian court in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, began amid mounting international pressure on Moscow to drop the case against Semena, 66. He faces up to five years in prison if convicted.

The charges stem from a 2015 article he wrote for RFE/RL's Krym.Realii (Crimea Realities) website that Moscow-installed authorities in Crimea allege called for the violation of Russia's territorial integrity.

"We do not admit guilt," Semena told journalists outside the court before the trial, referring to himself and his lawyers.

"My article does not include calls for the violation of Russia's territorial integrity," he said. "Crimea's status is in dispute."

The column was part of a wide-ranging discussion on the website about options for Crimea and was a response to an earlier column that opposed a blockade.

Semena is barred from leaving Crimea and must request permission to travel outside Simferopol.

ALSO READ: Crimean Journalist Risks Jail By Refusing To Follow Kremlin Line

At the hearing on March 20, defense lawyer Aleksandr Popkov called for the trial to be held in a larger courtroom in order to let more journalists cover it and provide more space for the participants. He said that there was not enough room for he and the other defense lawyer to organize their papers and no table at all for Semena.

Prosecutor Svetlana Udinskaya argued strenuously against the motion, calling the defense team "capricious" and adding, "Next time, the defense will demand coffee in bed."

But the judge, Nadezhda Shkolnaya, had already promised that a larger space would be found and said it would take some time. She adjourned the trial until April 3.

The start of Semena's trial followed a European Parliament resolution last week calling on Moscow to free more than 30 Ukrainian citizens who are in prison or face other conditions of restricted freedom in Russia, Crimea, and parts of eastern Ukraine that are controlled by Russia-backed separatists.

The nonbinding resolution urged Russia "to allow all the above-mentioned people to travel freely, including Mykola Semena, who is being prosecuted for his journalistic work for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty."

Washington last week also called on Russian authorities "to drop spurious charges against Mr. Semena and release him and all other Ukrainians held by Russia for political reasons."

And 10 members of the U.S. Congress signed a letter urging prosecutors to drop the charges, which they said appeared to be "part of a concerted effort by Russian and Russian-backed authorities to clamp down on independent media."

Russia seized control of Crimea in March 2014 after sending in troops without insignia, engineering a takeover of the regional legislature, and staging a referendum that was swiftly dismissed as illegitimate by Ukraine, the United States, and a total of 100 countries in the UN General Assembly.

Both the European Union and the United States used the occasion of the third anniversary of the seizure of Crimea to denounce it.

Moscow has portrayed its takeover of Crimea as necessary to protect ethnic Russians and other residents of the peninsula from oppression by pro-Western officials that took power in Kyiv following the 2014 ouster of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

That narrative is rejected by Ukraine and Western governments, which accuse Russian-backed authorities in Crimea of rights abuses against Crimean Tatars and others opposed to Moscow's rule there.

Natalya Poklonskaya, the former Russia-installed prosecutor-general in Crimea who filed the charges against Semena and who now serves in the Russian parliament, has accused RFE/RL's Krym.Realii of providing "justification for acts of sabotage and extremism" and inciting "ethnic hatred."

Semena's words to reporters on March 20 echoed remarks he made to RFE/RL late last month, when he said there was no evidence he committed a crime because "the status of Crimea is not clear, even within the framework of the Russian Federation."

He said Crimea "is a disputed territory which is the subject of an animated discussion all over the world," and that he has the right under international law and Russian legislation "to participate in this discussion" and express his point of view.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service
Uzbek rights activist Yelena Urlaeva was taken into custody on March 1 and confined to a psychiatric hospital. Urlaeva "has an enormous amount of compassion and understanding of people of all walks of life and religious backgrounds," says Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch.

The administration of new Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev seemed to be making progress in freeing political prisoners incarcerated during the previous regime of President Islam Karimov, whose death was announced on September 2, 2016.

Four activists -- three of whom had served sentences of 17 years or longer -- have left prison since late October 2016, and another activist was released from forced confinement in a psychiatric hospital after spending nearly all of the last 10 years in such facilities.

But on March 1, Mirziyaev’s government took a big step backward when it detained rights activist Elena Urlaeva and confined her to a psychiatric hospital.

How to read these seemingly mixed signals? Does Mirziyaev’s administration have a new policy toward jailed activists, political opponents, independent journalists, and others who were thrown into Uzbekistan’s prisons during the last 25 years under Karimov? Or was there another reason for freeing the activists? Is it still business as usual in Uzbekistan, despite the new president?

Those are the questions we ask in this week's Majlis podcast as we review the Uzbek government’s recent moves toward perceived regime opponents.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From Germany, Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, joined the talk. From the United States, Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, took part in the Majlis. News that Urlaeva had been forced into a psychiatric hospital hit me like a brick to the head, so I wanted to say something also.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev

Karimov’s government put thousands of people in prison over the course of 25 years. Most of them were jailed for religious reasons -- suspicions their piety had led, or would lead, them into Islamic extremist groups.

Any critic of the Uzbek government was targeted and measures taken to neutralize their potential influence on society.

"It has been a momentous six months," Swedlow said, as he recounted the release of an activist from the Ezgulik (Compassion) group, Bobomurod Razzaqov, in October, and Samandar Kukanov, a former member of Uzbekistan’s parliament who crossed Karimov and was imprisoned in 1993. "Perhaps after Nelson Mandela, [Kukanov] may have been the longest imprisoned political prisoner in the world."

And in February, there was Rustam Usmanov, founder of Uzbekistan’s first private bank but also a supporter of the opposition Erk party, who was jailed in 1998. And then the release of Muhammad Bekjon (Bekjonov), who Human Rights Watch called the longest imprisoned journalist in the world, put behind bars in 1999.

Bekjon is the brother of Muhammad Solih, the leader of the opposition Erk party. Swerdlow noted the significance of that, saying, "Many people believed that Mirziyaev could release others, but how could he possibly release the brother of probably the most hated enemy of the Uzbek government? But he did so."

Niyazova welcomed freedom for the four, but she noted, "Mirziyaev has not released them. ... [Three of them] already served all their [prison] terms," and added, "For Mirziyaev to release them, it cost him nothing, but it is in his favor that their detention term was ended."

Swerdlow pointed out that many of Uzbekistan’s prisoners, including those already mentioned here, have had their prison terms prolonged, usually just before they were due for release. Niyazova credited Mirziyaev for that: "It’s good that he decided not to prolong their terms."

And it was noted that these four men are now elderly, in their 60s and 70s, and probably do not represent much of any kind of threat to Uzbek authorities anymore.

Jamshid Karimov, the nephew of former Uzbek President Karimov, was also let out of a psychiatric hospital at the end of February. Karimov, a rights activist who was also an independent journalist, was first put in a psychiatric hospital in 2006. His relation to Karimov made no difference to the former president, who had been estranged from the rest of his family for many years.

These all seemed like very hopeful signs.

But on March 1, police took Urlaeva into custody.

As Niyazova explained, "The same evening, a man who introduced himself as a doctor at a psychiatric clinic called Elena’s son and said that Elena had been admitted for compulsory treatment."

Urlaeva has been instrumental in bringing to light the abuses that Uzbek authorities have been committing, particularly the annual conscription of up to 1 million people to go into the cotton fields at harvest time and pick cotton for the state.

WATCH: Uzbek Antislavery Activist Held In Mental Institution

Uzbek Antislavery Activist Held In Mental Institution
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Not so many years ago, many of these conscripts were children, but thanks to work by Urlaeva and others, this is no longer the case (although the authorities simply substituted the minors with their parents or other adults).

Niyazova said she has known Urlaeva for 15 years and "during all these years, we have lost count of how many times she has been arrested [or] she has been beaten."

As has previously been the case, Uzbek authorities have offered no reason why Urlaeva was detained, but Swerdlow offered one possible explanation for this latest detention.

"She was supposed to have a meeting with the World Bank and the [International Labor Organization] to discuss the results of the monitoring work she’s been doing, to discuss the cotton harvest," he said.

Uzbek authorities have attempted for years to point to Urlaeva’s psychiatric treatments as proof she is not mentally competent to make any judgments about events inside Uzbekistan.

"I remember very well, about 15 years ago, when Elena was standing on the street, a man who was most likely an SNB (National Security Service) agent kicked Elena in her stomach with all his strength in front of my eyes," Niyazova said.

"The trauma she has suffered means that sometimes Elena needs medical psychiatric help. We should be clear on this," Niyazova explained. "But this does not undermine or discredit her human rights work, and the most disgusting aspect of this case is that Uzbek authorities are taking advantage of Elena’s vulnerability, so when they don’t know how to silence her they simply detain her in a psychiatric clinic."

Swerdlow said Urlaeva "has an enormous amount of compassion and understanding of people of all walks of life and religious backgrounds and is willing to help basically anyone at the drop of a hat, run to their house, or run to wherever a detention or arrest is taking place, witness it, write it down, and immediately communicate it to journalists and diplomats and anyone who will listen."

Niyazova summed up Urlaeva’s importance to Uzbekistan, saying, "Especially in Uzbek society and in a country like Uzbekistan, [where] people are living in fear, when people think about one thing and say another, Elena is unique."

Majlis Podcast: Mirziyaev And Human Rights
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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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