The top court in Russia-annexed Crimea has banned the governing body of the Crimean Tatar community, branding it an extremist organisation in the latest move against the Ukrainian peninsula’s ethnic minority.
The supreme court of Crimea ruled on Tuesday in favour of a lawsuit lodged by the top prosecutor of the Black Sea peninsula, who had accused the body, called the Mejlis, of illegal actions and “acts of sabotage” against the territory’s new Russian authorities.
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Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko slammed the decision as a “criminal ruling” when discussing the issue with European Council head Donald Tusk on Tuesday, his office said.
Rights groups also condemned the ban, with Amnesty International saying it “demolishes one of the few remaining rights of a minority that Russia must protect instead of persecute”.
Prosecutor Natalia Poklonskaya earlier this month ordered the Mejlis to cease its activities, accusing the respected body which has been working in Crimea for 25 years of “extremism”.
The lawyer for the Mejlis, Dzhemil Temishev, said the organisation would appeal against the decision in higher courts.
“The prosecutor did not prove that the Mejlis’ activities are extremist. Everything we heard in court is her personal assessment,” Temishev told the AFP news agency.
Thorbjorn Jagland, the chief of the Council of Europe, in a statement called on Russian authorities to “take appropriate measures to reverse this decision rapidly”, expressing concern that the ruling would “considerably increase the risk of further alienation” of the Crimean Tatars.
The Crimean Tatars make up about 13 percent of Crimea’s population.
They are a Muslim people native to the peninsula who were deported under Soviet leader Josef Stalin, returning only at the collapse of the Soviet Union when the territory was granted autonomous status within a newly independent Ukraine.
The Mejlis resisted the peninsula’s return to Moscow rule in 2014 and has been operating under pressure ever since, with many key figures banished from the region and now working from Ukraine.
Some Crimean Tatar leaders have also attempted to organise a blockade of the peninsula.
Police have raided the homes of many Crimean Tatars and took the prominent Tatar TV channel ATR off the air last year.
Several community leaders have been prosecuted for allegedly organising riots in February 2014 ahead of Moscow’s annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine.
A deputy chairman of the Mejlis, Nariman Dzhelal, told AFP it would try to continue its work despite the ban.
“This court decision was absolutely expected,” he said. “But that does not mean that the Mejlis will cease to exist. It will continue working in Ukraine and other countries.”
Dzhelal also warned that Russia’s security services could use the ruling to further crack down on Crimean Tatars.