WASHINGTON -- Mykola Semena, a Crimean contributor to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Ukrainian Service, has been released from house arrest in a case that has become synonymous with Russia’s efforts to silence independent voices on the peninsula.
Semena, 69, received papers on January 28 documenting a January 14 decision by a court in Simferopol, the Crimean capital, to terminate his sentence and clear him of all charges. The ruling allows him to move freely and resume his journalism.
Reacting to the news, RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said, “Mykola is a free man – free to be with his family, to receive the medical care he needs, and, of course, to write.” Commenting further, Fly said, “Journalism is not a crime. Mykola’s arrest for publishing criticism of the annexation was politically motivated and a profound violation of his basic rights. We are very happy that his important journalistic voice will be heard again.”
Semena spoke to RFE/RL after his release, saying about his conviction, “The hardest thing…was to accept the fact...that it was not a judicial court, but a court that was shaped by orders from above.” He said it was particularly painful that, while the international rights community understood that his case violated international law, “the judicial machinery just kept moving on. The whole process crossed about four years out of my life.”
Although he has been declared free, Semena says he does not expect to remain in his native Crimea. His release comes just 10 days after Taras Ibragimov, another RFE/RL Crimean contributor, was barred by Russia’s Federal Security Service from entering Crimea for a shocking 34 years. Human Rights Watch has described the ban as an effort by Russia “to choke the flow of information about their crackdown on Crimean Tatar activists and other abuses.”
Semena, who has contributed to the Ukrainian Service’s Crimea.Realities unit, was arrested by Russia-backed authorities in April 2016 and charged with acting against the "territorial integrity of the Russian Federation" after publishing an article challenging Moscow’s forcible annexation of the peninsula in 2014. He was found guilty of “separatism” in 2017 and given a three-year conditional sentence that confined him to house arrest and banned him from public speaking, publishing in the media, or posting on social networks. He was vilified in Crimea’s official media for his pro-Ukrainian position and called “a traitor to the motherland” and a “foreign spy.”
His case drew public outrage, with 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 numerous media watchdogs and human rights groups condemning his conviction and demanding his release. In March 2017, 10 members of the U.S. Congress sent a letter to Crimea’s prosecutor-general urging that the charges against Semena be dropped; in October that same year, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for his freedom. In 2018, Semena was awarded the prestigious Andrei Sakharov Order For Courage. In September 2019, U.S. Charge d’Affaires in Ukraine William Taylor publicly recognized Semena’s persecution by Russian authorities, calling him a “hero...not with us today because [he is] in unfreedom.”
RFE/RL's Crimea.Realities project was launched just months after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 to provide accurate news and information in the Ukrainian, Russian, and Crimean Tatar languages to audiences otherwise captive to Russian state media. Its launch inspired Donbas.Realities, a similar project for audiences in the regions of eastern Ukraine currently under Russia-backed separatist control. Both are part of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, which sets a standard in the Ukrainian media market for independence, innovation, and professionalism.