Human Rights Watch (HRW) has condemned the recent arrests of 23 Crimean Tatars by Russian authorities, calling it an "unprecedented move to intensify pressure on a group largely critical" of Moscow's seizure of Ukraine's Crimea region.
"The sweeping arrests in Crimea aim to portray politically active Crimean Tatars as terrorists as a way to silence them," said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at the New York-based watchdog, said in a statement on April 2.
"This has been their approach for several years, and it should stop. These men should be released at once," Denber added.
A Russia-controlled court in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, said on March 29 that since March 27, 23 Crimean Tatars had been arrested and placed in pretrial detention until May 15, on a charge of belonging to the Hizb ut-Tahrir Islamic group.
HRW said that one man has been charged in absentia and is wanted by Russian law enforcement.
Russia banned Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organization in 2003 but the group operates legally in Ukraine and much of Europe.
Russian authorities said that 20 of the men were arrested in Crimea, and the other three in a Russian city as part of the same operation.
'Campaign Of Repression'
HRW quoted their lawyers as saying that their clients had been transported to the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, some 500 kilometers from Simferopol, where they were being held in isolation.
They have been charged with organizing activities of a terrorist organization or with participating in such a terrorist organization, according to HRW.
It said that 14 of the men arrested were active participants in the human rights group Crimean Solidarity, while the other 10 had been involved with some of the organization's activities such as attending trials.
Rights groups and Western governments have denounced what they describe as a campaign of repression by the Russian-imposed authorities in Crimea who are targeting members of the Turkic-speaking Crimean Tatar community and others who have spoken out against Moscow's takeover of the peninsula.
Russia took control of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 after sending in troops, seizing key facilities, and staging a referendum dismissed as illegal by at least 100 countries.
Moscow also backs separatists in a war against government forces that has killed some 13,000 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.