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.