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RFE/RL Crimean Journalist Faces Separatism Conviction By Russian Court

Crimean journalist Mykola Semena, in Simferopol, 18 Sep 2017

WASHINGTON - A Russian prosecutor in Crimea has recommended a conviction on separatism charges and a three-year suspended sentence for Mykola Semena, a contributor to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) whose trial has become a symbol of the Russian government’s crackdown on independent voices on the annexed peninsula.

The prosecutor also recommended that Semena be barred from "public activities," apparently a reference to his working as a journalist, for the same three-year term. According to his lawyers, a verdict is expected on September 22.

In his final statement made to the court on September 18, Semena insisted on his innocence. In his writing, he said he has always relied on international law, as well as domestic Russian and Ukrainian law, to argue his position.

"I think this is exactly what any good and law-abiding citizen of any state, including Ukraine or Russia, should always do," Semena told the court, adding, “the state not only has no legal right to try [a citizen] for that, it has no moral right to punish him for that, especially if the state -- through its constitution -- has guaranteed freedom of expression and freedom of thought. Otherwise the state is doomed."

RFE/RL President Thomas Kent has repeatedly condemned the charges against Semena. Commenting after yesterday’s proceedings, he said the case “is aimed at intimidating journalists, silencing dissent, and interfering with RFE/RL’s mission to provide an independent press to residents of Crimea."

The charges against Semena stem from an opinion piece he wrote for RFE/RL’s Crimea Realities (Krym.Realii) website in 2015 in which he criticized Russia's seizure of Crimea and expressed support for activists’ plans to block it. The prosecutor charged that the article called for the violation of Russia’s territorial integrity.

The United States, the European Union, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have criticized the “politically-motivated persecutions” against Semena and called the charges “totally unacceptable.”

In addition, more than two dozen prominent media watchdogs and human rights groups have expressed outrage over Semena’s case. In March this year, 10 members of the U.S. Congress, led by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), sent a letter to Crimea’s prosecutor general urging that the charges against Semena be dropped.

Produced by an editorial unit of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, Krym.Realii is virtually the only remaining source of independent news in Crimea, producing audio, visual, and text content in three languages for broadcast and digital distribution via social networks including YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Odnoklassniki. The website has averaged 1.5 million visits and 2.5 million page views each month in 2017, even though the websites has been blocked intermittently since its debut in March 2014.