Statement – Crimea (Ukraine): Human Rights Lawyers Lilia Hemedzhy, Rustem Kyamilev and Nazim Sheikhmambetov disbarred
Since Russia’s occupation of Crimea in 2014, authorities have relentlessly persecuted Crimean Tatars and others who have been critical of Russia’s human rights violations on the peninsula. In response to the growing abundance of politically motivated cases against Euromaidan activists, representatives of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People (banned in Russia in 2016), activists from the Ukrainian cultural center and representatives of the Islamic political party Hizb ut-Tahrir, the human rights initiative “Crimean Solidarity” was launched. This initiative supports victims of political persecution by documenting human right violations, providing legal aid, observing trials and supporting victims’ families. Lawyers working on politically motivated cases in Crimea soon became major targets for the authorities, regularly being subjected to harassment, threats, judicial prosecution, office raids, disciplinary penalties and threats of disbarment. On 15 July 2022, the Bar Association of the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation disbarred human rights lawyers Lilia Hemedzhy, Rustem Kyamilev and Nazim Sheikhmambetov. Front Line Defenders condemns the disbarment of the lawyers and the increased targeting against human rights lawyers in Crimea by Russian authorities.
Lilia Hemedzhy, Rustem Kyamilev, and Nazim Sheikhmambetov are the leading human rights lawyers in Crimea defending the rights of Crimean Tatars – an ethnic minority group who have become a major target of persecution by the authorities, alongside civil society activists and journalists. Lilia Hemedzhy was one of the initiators who had launched the school of public defenders in Crimea and in 2019, the Dutch Government presented her with the Human Rights Tulip Award.
On 15 July 2022, the Bar Association of the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation disbarred human rights lawyers Lilia Hemedzhy, Rustem Kyamilev, and Nazim Sheikhmambetov, in relation to their alleged violation of the procedure concerning transferring from one bar association to another. The lawyers currently cannot participate in criminal cases and are ineligible to take an exam for re-acquisition of legal professional status for one year.
On 28 April 2022, the Chechen Bar Association received a complaint from the Office of the Ministry of Justice for the Chechen Republic, demanding that the legal professional statuses of Lilia Hemedzhy, Rustem Kyamilev and Nazim Sheikhmambetov be revoked. Prior to this, the Minister of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Crimea, Pavel Karanda, appealed to the Office of Ministry of Justice for the Chechen Republic with a demand to conduct an investigation into the human rights lawyers’ work "in case they violate the current legislation of the Russian Federation." Pavel Karanda reportedly threatened the Chechen Bar Association that if his demand was ignored, the Russian Ministry of Justice and the Federal Bar Association would question to what extent the members of the Qualification Commission of the Chechen Bar Association fulfill their duties professionally.
The disbarment procedure took place without the participation of Lilia Hemedzhy, Rustem Kyamilev and Nazim Sheikhmambetov. The human rights lawyers did not receive the materials that became the basis for the investigation, nor had they the opportunity to object to their disbarment. While Lilia Hemedzhy was notified one day before the date and time of the qualification commission’s meeting on the decision of her disbarment, Nazim Sheikhmambetov and Rustem Kyamilev were not notified at all. They are planning on appealing the decision at court and before the Federal Bar Association.
Due to the pressure and threats from the representatives of the Bar Association of Crimea, the human rights lawyers were not allowed to obtain lawyer licences in Crimea. Therefore, they decided to submit their documents to the Bar Association of the Chechen Republic and received their legal professional status in 2019.
For some time, the human rights lawyers have attempted to transfer from the Bar Association of the Chechen Republic to the Bar Association of Crimea. On 27 March 2020, Rustem Kyamilev filed a notification concerning transferring his membership from the Chechen Bar to the Crimean Bar, and asked for the relevant information to be entered in the regional register. Rustem Kyamilev's request was considered only four months later. On 10 July 2020, the Bar Association of Crimea came to the conclusion that “the status of lawyer Kyamilev in Chechnya is not impeccable.” Rustem Kyamilev was ultimatley denied admission to the Bar Association of Crimea. Nazim Sheikhmambetov filed an application for voluntary termination of his legal professional status in Chechnya and, together with Lilya Hemedzhy, in January 2022 submitted documents for transfer to the Bar Association of Crimea. However, both human rights lawyers were refused the transfer. The Bar Association of Crimea had considered the application for several months, which became the formal basis for depriving them of their legal license.
This is not the first attempt to impede the work of human rights lawyers in Crimea. In 2017 and 2018, Emil Kurbedinov, the winner of the 2017 Front Line Defender’s Award, was sentenced to ten and five days of administrative arrest on charges of “public distribution of extremist materials”. Both charges were in relation to the same social media post in 2013, that displayed symbols of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which he posted on different social media sites. Hizb ut-Tahrir is banned in Russia as a terrorist organization, however, it operates legally in Ukraine. Shortly after his release, Emil Kurbedinov and the Bar Association of Crimea received a letter from Russia’s Ministry of Justice requesting to expel the lawyer from the bar association. The Bar Association of Crimea considered the possibility to exclude Emil Kurbedinov from the list of its founders and members, but decided to maintain his membership after establishing a special commission for this purpose.
Lilia Hemedzhy has been targeted for her human rights work for many years. In October 2018, during a meeting of Crimean Solidarity, Lilia Hemedzhy together with Edem Semedlyaev were handed “warnings” as alleged possible organisers of “extremist activities”. Emil Kurbedinov received the same warning several days later. In February 2020, the president of the Bar Association of the Chechen Republic initiated disciplinary proceedings against Lilia Hemedzhy, for an internet publication where she stated that most of the Crimean Tatars are prosecuted under “terrorist” charges. The vice-president of the Bar Association of the Chechen Republic, who filed a submission in the proceedings, stated that Lilia Hemedzhy violated the professional ethics of a lawyer, but no disciplinary measures were imposed on her. In August 2020, when Lilia Hemedzhy was representing human rights defender Server Mustafayev at the Southern District Military Court in Rostov-on-Don, the judge issued her a special court determination. Lilia Hemedzhy asked to call on a witness three times, but the judge didn’t respond. When the human rights lawyer continued to speak, the judge reportedly shouted at her and retired to the conference room for an hour, only to come back with a special court determination after.
On 26 May 2022, Nazim Sheikhmambetov was arrested at a court hearing while representing his colleague Edem Semedlyaev, and was sentenced to 8 days administrative arrest. Since autumn 2021, Edem Semedlyaev has spent 12 days in administrative detention and was fined twice. Nazim Sheikhmambetov represented Edem Semedlyaev in a case concerning the alleged “discreditation of the actions of the Russian Armed Forces”, for being tagged in a Facebook post. Two of Nazim Sheikhmambetov’s colleagues, lawyers Ayder Azamatov and Emine Avamileva, were detained a day after Nazim Sheikhmambetov. Ayder Azamatov was sentenced to 8 days of administrative arrest, while Emine Avamileva was sentenced to 5 days. The charges were based on the event in October 2021 outside the entrance of the police station, where the lawyers and their listeners gathered outside to record comments for the press. The court concluded that this gathering was an illegal mass meeting of citizens.
Front Line Defenders condemns the disbarment of human rights lawyers Lilia Hemedzhy, Rustem Kyamilev and Nazim Sheikhmambetov. It believes that their disbarment is a clear reprisal for their legitimate and peaceful work as human rights lawyers and for voicing concerns over the on-going human rights violations in Crimea. The targeting and systemic persecution of human rights lawyers by the Russian authorities forms part of a worrying trend in Crimea since its annexation in 2014. This systemic persecution includes sustained judicial prosecution, office raids, disciplinary penalties, threats of disbarment and disbarment. Front Line Defenders urges Russian authorities to put an end to all acts of harassment, including at the administrative and judicial levels, against all human rights defenders and human rights lawyers in Crimea.