WASHINGTON -- A court in Russia-occupied Crimea has found Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) contributor Mykola Semena guilty on a charge of separatism in a closely watched case that has become a symbol of the Russian government’s crackdown on independent voices on the annexed peninsula.
Semena was given a 2 1/2 year suspended sentence and a three-year ban on “public activities,” which appears to be a reference to his journalism. A computer belonging to him that was seized during an investigation in 2016 was confiscated.
RFE/RL President Thomas Kent condemned today’s conviction as part of an orchestrated effort by Russian authorities “to obstruct the journalistic mission of RFE/RL to provide independent news and information to Crimean residents.” He said the verdict “contradicts Semena’s fundamental right to free expression and international norms of justice,” and should be reversed.
Semena has insisted on his innocence throughout his trial, telling the court during concluding arguments on September 18 that the views expressed in his writing are based on international law, as well as domestic Russian and Ukrainian law. He declared, “the state not only has no legal right… it has no moral right to punish” a citizen for expressing positions that the constitution’s freedom of expression guarantees.
The charge against Semena stems from an opinion piece he wrote for RFE/RL’s Crimea Realities (Krym.Realii) website in 2015 criticizing Russia's seizure of Crimea and expressing support for activists’ plans to block it. The court ruled that the commentary, which was published as part of a discussion in which writers expressed a range of views about the annexation, called for the violation of Russia’s territorial integrity.
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 have condemned the charges against Semena as politically motivated.
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 it has been blocked intermittently since its launch in March 2014.