Ukraine: ARTICLE 19 calls for the immediate release of missing Crimea activists

Ukraine: ARTICLE 19 calls for the immediate release of missing Crimea activists - Protection

Pro-Russian activists outside the Crimean parliament in Simferopol, the region's capital which has a majority Russian speaking population. Protests against the government of President Viktor Yanukovych were sparked on 21 November 2013 by the Ukrainian government's decision to suspend preparations for the signing of an association agreement with the European Union. In February 2014 the protests forced Yanukovych to flee to Russia leaving behind a fractured country. Pro-Russian activists then asserted themselves in the east with armed militias taking over airports and storming the Crimean parliament where they demanded that the new regime in Kiev was not to be acknowledged.

ARTICLE 19 is alarmed by the growing number of activists and journalists who have gone missing ahead of tomorrow’s referendum and calls for the immediate release of all those abducted.

Yesterday, amidst growing concern for a number of activists and journalists abducted in recent days, it was reported that Oleg Balaban, Ukrainian operator of UkrStream.TV, was detained by a group of armed people in Sevastopol, Crimea and that his whereabouts remains unknown.

A further three activists have gone missing since March 13, following claims that the car in which they were travelling was being chased and shot at. Aleksei Gritsenko, Sergei Suprun and Natalya Lukyanchenko have not been heard from since late on March 13 when they reported being under attack.

These alarming incidents highlight the violent intimidation, harassment, and illegal detention of human rights defenders and journalists in Crimea leading up to the referendum.

On 9 March, Andrei Shekun, Head of the Ukranian Council of Crimea, and activist Anatoly Kovalsky, were both apprehended by unidentified uniformed men at a train station in Simferopol. In a statement released to news agency ‘Rosukrinform’ two days later, Sergei Aksakov, the self-appointed Prime Minister of Crimea, alleged that Shekun was being detained by Crimean Security Services to prevent him from being able to ‘interfere’ with the upcoming referendum. No official information has been made available as to his whereabouts and both Shekun and Kovalsky remain missing. The Procurators Office of Crimea has opened a criminal investigation into the abduction of both men.

On the same day that Shekun and Kovalsky were abducted, freelance journalist Elena Maksimenko, photographer Oles Kromplas, their driver and two activists, Aleksandra Ryazantseva and Kateryna Butko, were also taken – again by unidentified uniformed men – as they tried to enter Crimea at the border checkpoint near the city of Armyansk.  The two female activists, travelling in a separate car, were reportedly threatened, forced to their knees and had their hands tied together before being taken away. All five were eventually released two days later.

“These cases indicate the dangerous situation for journalists and activists in Crimea and the widespread efforts being made to silence critical voices prior to the referendum,” said ARTICLE 19 Executive Director Thomas Hughes. “We call on the Crimean authorities to immediately release those held and to respect freedom of expression and the right of assembly.”

Update – 17 March 2014:

Following the publication of this article, we note that Oleg Balaban was released late on 15 March 2014.