“For four months I’ve had impaired hearing and a constant ringing in my left ear, which causes me unbearable pain,” Iryna Danylovych, a Crimean human rights defender and citizen journalist wrote. “While moving from Simferopol to Feodosia, my condition worsened. The symptoms may indicate a ministroke.”
The letter, posted on the website of KrymSOS, a Ukrainian human rights group, marked the beginning of a hunger strike by Danylovych, who was jailed for 7 years in December on charges of illegal possession of explosives. She is demanding medical treatment for ill health caused by poor conditions since she was abducted in April 2022, and her protest, which started on March 21, will continue until “the start of treatment or biological death,” she wrote.
Danylovych’s case is one of many examples of political imprisonment on the peninsula. She was fired from her job as a nurse and seized after raising questions about corruption in occupied Crimea’s healthcare system, reporting on political trials, and working with human rights organizations. Her lawyers say her trial was rigged against her using fabricated evidence.
According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, there are at least 155 Crimean political prisoners being held in Crimea or in the Russian Federation. Two died in February after medical care was withheld. Konstantin Shiring in a Russian colony in Orenburg Oblast, and Crimean Tatar Dzhemil Gafarov in prison in Rostov-on-Don.
“On the eve of the full-scale invasion, according to our lists, at least 127 citizens were imprisoned for political reasons,” said Olga Skrypnyk, chairwoman of the Board of the Crimean Human Rights Group. “These are Crimeans, Crimean Tatars, and Ukrainians who were arrested for their pro-Ukrainian activity.”
Russia tightened censorship after the invasion, introducing new laws against “discrediting the Russian army” and “fake news”, giving further avenues for persecution. At the end of 2022, Skrypnyk’s organization recorded at least 200 administrative cases against Crimeans for expressing their support of Ukraine, including social media posts against the war, one-man protests, and singing or playing Ukrainian songs at private events.
In September, six people were either fined 50,000 rubles ($820) or sentenced to jail terms of between five and 15 days by the Bakhchysarai district court for playing Chervona Kalyna, a popular Ukrainian patriotic song, at a wedding party.
Patriotic tattoos have become a way of showing defiance of the occupation, and the Russians are using censorship laws to suppress them. Ksenia Golubenko, a woman from Simferopol, was detained on charges of “discrediting” the army and forced to apologize on camera for her “Crimea is Ukraine” tattoo, Mediazona reported. The apology video was published by Crimean Smersh, a pro-Kremlin Telegram channel, which urged followers to harass the tattoo artist responsible.
Russian security forces record such videos not only to intimidate the population living under occupation but also to be used in court. They are “forcing people to say the necessary text, under the article of the law that suits them, as evidence against themselves,” artist Bohdan Ziza said in an interview with Krym.Realii.
Ziza, who was arrested on terrorism charges after he was accused of throwing yellow and blue paint and a Molotov cocktail at the occupation administration’s building in Yevpatoria, said he had been repeatedly beaten, and the video re-recorded five times before Russian authorities were satisfied they had what they wanted.
Daubing paint and slogans in public places and on buildings also helps to build insecurity among the occupiers, according to the organizers of the “yellow ribbon” movement, a group of approximately 1,000 people in Crimea who deface Russian propaganda posters and other symbols of the occupation with yellow paint.
“When a Russian soldier or collaborator sees Ukrainian graffiti, Ukrainian leaflets hears the Ukrainian language, this is all an element of pressure on him,” one of the group’s coordinators said in an anonymous interview with NV.UA. “When he opens a Telegram, when he opens online publications, YouTube, and sees everywhere the Yellow Ribbon, or some other actions of the Ukrainian resistance forces, he understands he doesn’t belong here.”
The activists help to build pressure alongside the work of “ATESH,” which carries out sabotage against Russian forces and their collaborators. The group’s task, according to its Telegram channel, is the destruction of the Russian army. It has claimed responsibility for several actions on the peninsula, including setting fire to a Russian military base in Sovietskyi and planting bombs in the cars of Rosgvardiya officers.
One of the most high-risk fronts for Crimeans is cooperation with Kyiv, according to Skrypnyk. Being caught collecting evidence with the aim of bringing Russian criminals and collaborators to justice over crimes against humanity or war crimes is heavily punished by the occupiers.
“This is one of the riskiest forms of activity,” she said. “If the FSB can find evidence of this, it is definitely a very long-term sentence – it is an average of 12-15 years of imprisonment.”
A constant challenge for human rights defenders is finding ways to help people who have been detained or held in jails, Skrypnyk said. Access to Crimea from the outside is impossible, and often the only way to provide help is through a lawyer, which gives an opportunity to find the person, collect evidence and keep in touch, though little prospect of a fair trial.
And the politics of occupation makes the work even more complex. Civilian prisoners are the most vulnerable category of people to work with, as Russia refuses to confirm they are in pre-detention centers or in prisons.
“Since Russia considers Crimea to be its territory, it doesn’t enter negotiations about civilians and doesn’t offer them for exchanges with the Ukrainian side,” Skrypnyk said. “Return, exchange, any form of release is the most acute problem.”
She called for the creation of an international humanitarian group to support civilians being held by the Russians. It could either be based in a country that still has relations with Moscow or set up as part of an international body, such as the OSCE or the Red Cross, even though such organizations have little credibility in Ukraine, she said.
The group could “raise humanitarian issues, for example, about civilians, and probably include the issue of the deportation of children,” she said. “We have to look for ways to access these people, collect information, and find mechanisms for their release.”
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.