WASHINGTON -- A trial date has been set for journalist Mykola Semena, a contributor to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), whose case has come to symbolize the suppression of dissent in Russia-annexed Crimea.
Semena's lawyer, Emil Kurbedinov, told RFE/RL that the trial on charges of separatism will start on February 28, although preliminary hearings will begin in a Simferopol district court on February 17.
RFE/RL President Thomas Kent has assailed the case, calling it “part of a concerted effort by Russian and Russian-backed authorities to obstruct RFE/RL’s journalistic mission to provide an independent press to residents of Crimea."
The charges have been brought against Semena for an article he wrote on his blog that was critical of Moscow’s 2014 seizure of Crimea. If convicted, he faces a five-year prison sentence.
Semena rejects the charges, telling RFE/RL in late 2016 that “freedom of speech has been extinguished” in Crimea by two years of “total control” by Russian security forces, and that “free and honest journalists are forced to stay underground.”
The United States, the European Union, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and international media watchdogs have condemned the case, calling the charges ‘unfounded’ and demanding they be dropped.
Semena was recently awarded the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum’s Pavel Sheremet Journalism Award in absentia in Brussels on November 28, and the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine’s Igor Lyubchenko Press Freedom Award on November 2. Crimea Realities, the RFE/RL website to which he contributes that covers the peninsula, was a recipient of the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ 2016 David Burke Award.
He is currently under a court order from occupying Russian officials that bars him from leaving Crimea and forces him to seek permission before traveling outside the region's capital, Simferopol.