On September 11th, the Russian Supreme Court in Crimea sentenced Crimean Tatar National Assembly Vice-President Akhtem Chiygoz to eight years in prison. This verdict is not only another example of Russia’s continuing menace with regard to the Crimean Tatars and other people of the Crimean peninsula who oppose Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, but also a major violation of the basic principles of law.

Following the Euromaidan Revolution in February 2014 in Ukraine, during a meeting with the chiefs of Russian security services on the night of February 22nd, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia had to “start working on returning Crimea to Russia.” On February 23rd, pro-Russian demonstrations began in the Crimean peninsula, and on February 27th,“little green men,” i.e., Russian troops without insignia, occupied the Parliament of Crimea and other strategic points.

This was followed by the removal of the administration in Crimea with the pro-Russian  government of Aksyonov and the declaration of Crimea’s independence. On March 16th, a controversial referendum was held in the peninsula under the shadow of machine guns and as a result Crimea was declared a part of the Russian Federation. On March 27th, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning this referendum as invalid and having no effect to alter the status of Crimea. The UN resolution affirmed “the sovereignty, political independence, unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.”

The Russian Supreme Court convicted Ahtem Chiygoz for “organizing riots” on February 26th, 2014, when approximately ten thousand Crimean Tatars gathered outside the Crimean Parliament to protest the occupation of Crimea and support the territorial integrity of Ukraine, who were, however, confronted by the members of the pro-Russian Unity Party.  

This verdict of the Russian court is yet another intimidation to the majority of the Crimean Tatars and other people in the peninsula, who oppose the illegal actions of Russia. Since the occupation, at least 9 people have been killed, 15 kidnapped, and 25 remain in custody as political prisoners. Raids on homes of the Crimean Tatars by Russian security forces, prosecutions and even forced disappearances have become ordinary events in the peninsula. Some of the leaders of the Crimean Tatars, including Mustafa Dzhemilev, leader of the Crimean Tatar National Movement and Refat Chubarov, the Chairman of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis were banned from entering Crimea. The licenses of the Crimean Tatar TV and radio broadcasts were not renewed.

These practices, which are in breach of human rights, obviously seek to silence the voice of peaceful opposition against Russia’s illegal annexation. In fact, many prominent international human rights organizations have repeatedly expressed such concerns. What is less mentioned, however, is the infringement of the basic principles of law in the peninsula. The trial of Akhtem Chiygoz is a vivid example.

First of all, due to the illegal nature of annexation, Russian courts cannot have any legal jurisdiction in Crimea. This means that not only verdicts of the Russian courts in Crimea are invalid, but also the trials themselves are unlawful. Therefore, Chiygoz’s trial as such is a violation of international law.

Secondly, Chiygoz’s convinction is a violation of a universal law principle of nullumcrimennullapoena sine lege (principle of legality). This principle sustains that no crime or punishment can exist without a legal ground. According to this principle no person can be punished for an act that was not criminalized by law at the time of the execution of this act. As such, this principle bans ex post facto (retroactive) legislation.

The verdict relating to Akhtem Chiygoz is a perfect example of the violation of this principle as well. The demonstration, which Chiygoz is accused of took place on February 26th, 2014. This is about twenty days before the illegal referendum after which Crimea was declared a part of Russia. As such, even if Chiygoz could be tried by a Russian court and his act amounts to a crime in the Russian law, Chiygoz could not be convicted because at the time of the crime he is accused of, this law was not in effect in Crimea. 

All in all, the imprisonment of Akhtem Chiygoz should concern not only the Crimean Tatars and the human rights defenders, who have suffered as a result of the activities of Russia since 2014, but also the global public which adheres to the supremacy of the rule of law, for this verdict is a clear breach of the basic principles of law.