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RFE/RL Contributor Mykola Semena Goes On Trial In Crimea

Journalist Mykola Semena talks to journalists before his court appearance in Simferopol on March 20.
Journalist Mykola Semena talks to journalists before his court appearance in Simferopol on March 20.

Crimean journalist Mykola Semena has gone on trial on separatism-related charges in the Russian-controlled territory, telling reporters minutes before the hearing that he is innocent.

The judge adjourned the trial on March 20 for two weeks shortly after it got under way, following a motion by the defense to provide for a more open and accessible process by holding it in a larger courtroom. The trial is scheduled to resume on April 3.

Semena, an RFE/RL contributor, is being prosecuted for an article he wrote criticizing Moscow's seizure of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and expressing support for a blockade of the territory initiated by Ukrainian activists.

The trial at a Russian court in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, began amid mounting international pressure on Moscow to drop the case against Semena, 66. He faces up to five years in prison if convicted.

The charges stem from a 2015 article he wrote for RFE/RL's Krym.Realii (Crimea Realities) website that Moscow-installed authorities in Crimea allege called for the violation of Russia's territorial integrity.

"We do not admit guilt," Semena told journalists outside the court before the trial, referring to himself and his lawyers.

"My article does not include calls for the violation of Russia's territorial integrity," he said. "Crimea's status is in dispute."

The column was part of a wide-ranging discussion on the website about options for Crimea and was a response to an earlier column that opposed a blockade.

Semena is barred from leaving Crimea and must request permission to travel outside Simferopol.

ALSO READ: Crimean Journalist Risks Jail By Refusing To Follow Kremlin Line

At the hearing on March 20, defense lawyer Aleksandr Popkov called for the trial to be held in a larger courtroom in order to let more journalists cover it and provide more space for the participants. He said that there was not enough room for he and the other defense lawyer to organize their papers and no table at all for Semena.

Prosecutor Svetlana Udinskaya argued strenuously against the motion, calling the defense team "capricious" and adding, "Next time, the defense will demand coffee in bed."

But the judge, Nadezhda Shkolnaya, had already promised that a larger space would be found and said it would take some time. She adjourned the trial until April 3.

The start of Semena's trial followed a European Parliament resolution last week calling on Moscow to free more than 30 Ukrainian citizens who are in prison or face other conditions of restricted freedom in Russia, Crimea, and parts of eastern Ukraine that are controlled by Russia-backed separatists.

The nonbinding resolution urged Russia "to allow all the above-mentioned people to travel freely, including Mykola Semena, who is being prosecuted for his journalistic work for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty."

Washington last week also called on Russian authorities "to drop spurious charges against Mr. Semena and release him and all other Ukrainians held by Russia for political reasons."

And 10 members of the U.S. Congress signed a letter urging prosecutors to drop the charges, which they said appeared to be "part of a concerted effort by Russian and Russian-backed authorities to clamp down on independent media."

Russia seized control of Crimea in March 2014 after sending in troops without insignia, engineering a takeover of the regional legislature, and staging a referendum that was swiftly dismissed as illegitimate by Ukraine, the United States, and a total of 100 countries in the UN General Assembly.

Both the European Union and the United States used the occasion of the third anniversary of the seizure of Crimea to denounce it.

Moscow has portrayed its takeover of Crimea as necessary to protect ethnic Russians and other residents of the peninsula from oppression by pro-Western officials that took power in Kyiv following the 2014 ouster of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

That narrative is rejected by Ukraine and Western governments, which accuse Russian-backed authorities in Crimea of rights abuses against Crimean Tatars and others opposed to Moscow's rule there.

Natalya Poklonskaya, the former Russia-installed prosecutor-general in Crimea who filed the charges against Semena and who now serves in the Russian parliament, has accused RFE/RL's Krym.Realii of providing "justification for acts of sabotage and extremism" and inciting "ethnic hatred."

Semena's words to reporters on March 20 echoed remarks he made to RFE/RL late last month, when he said there was no evidence he committed a crime because "the status of Crimea is not clear, even within the framework of the Russian Federation."

He said Crimea "is a disputed territory which is the subject of an animated discussion all over the world," and that he has the right under international law and Russian legislation "to participate in this discussion" and express his point of view.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service