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Russia Celebrates Crimea Takeover As Criticism Mounts

Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) and other officials sing the national anthem as they take part in a rally and concert by the Kremlin Wall in central Moscow on March 18.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) and other officials sing the national anthem as they take part in a rally and concert by the Kremlin Wall in central Moscow on March 18.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Crimea is not just a territory, but the source of Russia's "historical origins" and its "spirituality and statehood."

Putin was addressing a rally outside the Kremlin on March 18 to celebrate the first anniversary of Russia's takeover of Crimea from Ukraine.

He said Russians showed "amazing patriotism in support of the people of Crimea and Sevastopol" one year ago.

Crimea's annexation and the subsequent Moscow-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine prompted the West to impose sanctions on Russia.

But Putin said the country will "overcome all problems and difficulties that they try to throw at us from outside."

The Russian president also said Russia will work to repair relations with Ukraine, but insisted he was certain Ukraine's people would one day assess their current leadership and realize "those who have brought the country [Ukraine]" to its current state.

Rossia 24 television was broadcasting live from the scene as performers took the stage and members of the crowd sang along.

The channel did not show Putin live on stage and only showed a clip that lasted less than one minute of his speech before showing other speakers.

Moscow police estimated the size of the crowd at about 110,000.

Putin was speaking a year after he signed a treaty with Kremlin-backed allies in Crimea that Moscow says made the Black Sea peninsula part of Russia.

Russia is defying Ukraine and the West with a week of ceremonies marking the anniversary of its annexation of Crimea, a move that ran counter the international law, drew widespread criticism abroad, and reignited tension between Moscow and its former Cold War foes.

With a war that erupted between Russian-backed separatists and government forces in eastern Ukraine weeks after the annexation persisting -- though hostilities have decreased under a cease-fire deal -- Russia has also staged large-scale military exercises this week in a show of force.

Celebrations in Moscow, Crimea, and elsewhere come amid a new wave of condemnation from the West and growing concern among rights groups about Russia's rule in Crimea, in particular its treatment of the region's Muslim Tatar minority.

Amnesty Slams Russian Actions

Amnesty International says in a new report that the Russian de facto authorities in Crimea have failed to investigate a series of abductions and torture of their critics.

Instead, Amnesty said, Crimea's de facto leaders have cracked down on dissent, creating a climate of fear on the annexed Ukrainian region, with many of the regime's more vocal critics opting to leave.

"One year on from Crimea’s annexation, the attitude of its de facto authorities and their Russian masters can be summed up simply -- like it or leave or shut up," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's director for Europe and Central Asia.

Amnesty said since the annexation, at least seven people have been abducted, with their fate remaining unknown. At least one other abducted person has been found dead, with signs of torture.

The global human rights watchdog said it had documented the disappearances of three Crimean Tatars.

Islyam Dzhepparov, 19, and Dzhevdet Islyamov, 23, were pushed into a van by four men in black uniform on September 29, 2014 and have not been seen since.

Reshat Ametov, 39, was abducted while attending a demonstration in March last year. His body was found later with signs of torture.

Andriy Schekun, the leader of Ukrainian House, an organization promoting Ukrainian language and culture, was abducted by pro-Russian paramilitaries and held for 11 days in a secret location where he was electrocuted in March 2014. He was eventually handed over to the Ukrainian military.

Amnesty said in none of these cases was anyone held accountable.

Amnesty said the de facto authorities are also using intimidation and restrictive laws to silence the media and NGOs.

On January 26, 2015, some 30 armed, masked men from a special police unit, accompanied by security officials, raided the offices of the Crimean Tatar TV Channel, ATR, disrupted broadcasting and took away documents dating back to February last year.

Several journalists and bloggers have fled Crimea, fearing persecution, including the vocally pro-Ukrainian blogger, Elizaveta Bogutskaya.

A number of prominent independent organizations, particularly those working on human rights issues, have ceased to exist.

The Mejlis, which represents the Crimean Tatar community, has been denied recognition and its prominent members subjected to a campaign of harassment and persecution.

The recognized leader of the Crimean Tatar national movement, Mustafa Dzhemilev, told a think tank in Brussels on March 17 that Crimeans "live and survive in fear" and spoke of constant intimidation and searches of schools and mosques for alleged arms and so-called forbidden literature.

He also added that there was "almost zero democratic freedom" and that Russia, through intimidation and blackmailing, is attempting to create "Putin Tatars" responsive to Moscow.

Dzhemilev called for tougher sanctions against Russia.

Dzhemilev spokesman Arsen Zhumadilov told RFE/RL on March 18 that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet with Crimean Tatar leaders during his official visit to Kyiv on March 20.

OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President Ilkka Kanerva issued a statement on March 18 that said, "Last March, Russia attempted to legitimize its occupation of Crimea and the fabricated 'referendum' that followed by supposedly integrating the Ukrainian territory into its own."

Kanerva's statement also said, "One year later, the annexation is not one bit less illegal, Russia's actions are not one bit less reprehensible...."

Putin's Role In Crimea

According to the state-run Russian news agency TASS, Putin will "check the social and economic development of Crimea at a special meeting" with the region's pro-Russian leadership in Moscow on March 18.

Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin's "short-term plans did not include a visit to Crimea," although he said the Russian leader may attend a rally and concert outside the Kremlin on March 18 to mark the Crimean anniversary.

Russia annexed Crimea after deploying troops to the region, engineering the takeover of the regional parliament, and staging a referendum denounced by Kyiv and the West as illegitimate.

In a documentary aired on state TV on March 15, Putin said he told senior security officials of his decision to take Crimea just hours after embattled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned power.

Putin said that at an emergency Kremlin meeting that ended early on February 23, 2014, "I told all my colleagues: We will have to start work to return Crimea to Russia."

Putin said he ordered military intelligence forces, marines, and paratroopers to Crimea "under the guise of strengthening the security of our military facilities there" but with the actual aim of surrounding and disarming what he said were 20,000 Ukrainian troops.

The Kremlin originally denied that it had sent troops into Crimea.

Russia has sought to justify the annexation by claiming that Crimeans faced a threat of violence and repression following Yanukovych's fall, an argument Kremlin critics and Western governments say is false.

The United States and European Union have reiterated their condemnation of Russia's takeover of Crimea this week.

"The European Union does not recognize and continues to condemn this act of violation of international law," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said on March 16.

She said the EU "will remain committed to fully implement its non-recognition policy, including through restrictive measures."

State Department Jen Psaki said the United States will not recognize Russia’s “attempted annexation" and that "sanctions related to Crimea will remain in place as long as the occupation continues.”

“Over the last year, the human rights situation in Crimea has deteriorated dramatically, with mounting repression of minority communities and faiths, in particular Crimean Tatars, and systematic denial of fundamental freedoms," Psaki said on March 16.

Coinciding with annexation anniversary celebrations, Russia is holding military exercises across parts of its western reaches this week.

Russian news agencies TASS and Interfax quoted defense officials on March 17 as saying Tu-95 and Tu-22M3 strategic bombers, capable of carrying nuclear bombs, were being sent to Crimea as part of exercises taking place in several regions.

The officials also said Iskander missiles would be sent to the Kaliningrad exclave, which borders NATO members Poland and Lithuania, as part of the military maneuvers.

Iskander missiles have a range of some 500 kilometers and can be equipped with conventional or nuclear warheads.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, TASS, Interfax, RIA, RBK, and Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels
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