Officials in Russia-annexed Crimea have charged Mykola Semena, a contributor to the RFE/RL website Krym.Realii (Crimea.Realities), with calls for separatism in the peninsula. Semena faced up to five years in prison.
On September 22, 2017, Semena was found guilty of the charge and handed a 2½ 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 the verdict and sentence, describing them as “part of an orchestrated effort by Russian authorities in Crimea to silence independent voices.”
The trial’s origins
After Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014, the Russian parliament passed a law making it a criminal offense to question Russia’s territorial integrity, which includes opposing the occupation.
Crimea’s Prosecutor-General, Natalya Poklonskaya, officially made the charge against Semena on April 28, 2016. The journalist’s lawyer, Emil Kuberdinov, said that Semena refused to answer investigators’ questions, citing his rights under Russian law not to testify against himself.
The Moscow-backed Prosecutor-General’s Office announced earlier the same month that Semena was being investigated over alleged “calls for undermining Russian territorial integrity via mass media.”
Federal Security Service (FSB) officers searched Semena’s home in Simferopol, the regional capital, on April 19, detained Semena for questioning and subsequently released him. However, he was ordered not to leave Crimea while investigations are underway. He is also required to seek prior permission merely to travel outside the city of Simferopol. According to news sources cited by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Semena “suffers from heart problems, but officials in Simferopol have denied his appeals to be allowed to travel to the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, for surgery.”
In July 2016, Russia’s Federal Financial Monitoring Service (Rosfinmonitoring) released a list of 22 people who were born on Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula who are deemed “terrorists and extremists.” The list includes Semena among other journalists, civil activists and political prisoners who have criticized Moscow’s occupation and illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.
Official legal proceedings begin
Semena received final written charges from the Russian-imposed authorities in December of 2016. In Russia’s judicial system, delivery of the final charges is often a sign that a trial will be held within weeks.
On January 20, 2017, Semena was subsequently served with the closing indictment in his case, a detailed document that includes descriptions of evidence, the names of prosecution witnesses, and other information.
Kuberdinov, Semena’s attorney who is a Crimean Tatar, was detained and questioned on January 26, 2017, on suspicion of “distributing extremist material,” according to a colleague, Edem Semedlyayev. Police reportedly searched Kuberdinov’s office and confiscated his computer.
Preliminary hearings in the case were set to begin on February 17, 2017, in the Zaliznychnyy District Court in Simferopol but were postponed reportedly due to one of Semena’s lawyers not being able to prepare for the hearing because his computer had previously been confiscated and only returned that day. Kurbedinov previously said the actual trial will start on February 28.
On February 28, 2017, at Semena’s preliminary hearing, the District Court announced the trial had been set to begin March 20. Shortly after it got underway on the first day, the judge adjourned the trial for two weeks following a motion by the defense to provide for a more open and accessible process by holding it in a larger courtroom.
The trial was plagued with several long adjournments:
- April 18 — Court adjourns until May 3 after a brief hearing at which a single witness for the prosecution testified
- May 3 — Two witnesses for the prosecution fail to show up to court, judge adjourns for one week
- May 10 — Two prosecution witnesses testify, judge schedules next hearing for May 22
- May 22 — Prosecution questions final witnesses and introduces more documents, judge sets next hearing two weeks later
- June 5 — Materials linked to prosecution are read for the record, judge adjourns the trial for 1½ weeks
- June 14 — Defense had been expected to begin making its case, but judge quickly adjourned the trial until June 21 after a Russian-Ukrainian translator fails to show
- June 14 — Judge quickly adjourns trial after several witnesses, an expert from Russia’s Federal Security Service, and a translator don’t show up to court
- July 7 — Expert testimony offered by prosecution witnesses, court rejects defense motion to question FSB officer in closed session
- July 18 — Defense witnesses and experts testify, including the editor-in-chief of the Crimea.Realities website, Volodymyr Prytula
- August 3 — Judge rejects efforts by defense to obtain FSB documents cited in earlier testimony by a prosecution witness
- August 31 — Judge adjurns first hearing in weeks after a brief session in which a prosecutor says she was unprepared
- September 18 — Prosecutor asks court for guilty verdict hand a three-year suspended sentence
“If I am pronounced guilty it will be a verdict not only for me, a Ukrainian journalist, but a verdict against journalism as a whole in Russia.”
Mykola SemenaFinal statement in his own trial, September 2017
At the September 18 hearing, the Russian prosecutor recommended a suspended sentence for Semena. The prosecution requested that the court to find him guilty and hand him a three-year suspended sentence—meaning he would not be imprisoned unless he were to violate the terms of the verdict. He also requested that Semena be barred from so-called public activities including journalism.
Given the floor for his final statement before the verdict, Semena repeated his contention that he is innocent.
He said that both Ukrainian and Russian law give him the right to express his opinions freely. Semena also said that public discussion of all issues, including whether or not any particular region is legally part of Russia, is protected by the freedom of expression.
After the guilty verdict was announced on September 22, Semena told RFE/RL after the sentence was pronounced that the trial against him was “biased.”
“On the one hand I feel a relief as the sentence is suspended, on the other hand, I am disappointed with Russian justice because all the arguments and statements by the defense and experts, whom we invited from Moscow and Kazan had not been taken into account by the court,” Semena said.
The chairman of Ukraine’s National Union of Journalists, Serhiy Tomilenko, called Semena’s verdict and sentence “a persecution for expressing an opinion,” adding that his union will be working on relocating Semena to Ukraine.
Mykola Semena was born in 1950 in Bobrovytsia, the city center of Bobrovytsia Raion within the Chernihiv Oblast of Ukraine. In 1976, he graduated from Kiev State University with a degree in journalism. Semena worked as a correspondent in the Zaporozhye region, then in Sudak, where he was deputy editor of a local newspaper. He later became an active contributor of local publications in Simferopol including newspapers День (The Day) and Дзеркало тижня (The Weekly Mirror) until becoming a contributor for RFE/RL’s Krym.Realii.