March 17, 2017

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EU extends sanctions over Crimea

BRUSSELS – The European Union has extended sanctions against dozens of individuals and entities over Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. EU ambassadors agreed on March 13 to prolong the sanctions against 150 individuals and 37 entities that, according to Brussels, are responsible for actions against Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The existing sanctions were due to expire on March 15. Asset freezes and visa bans were first imposed by the EU in March 2014 after Russia illegally annexed Crimea. Those sanctions have been continued and expanded by a series of additional votes by EU officials in Brussels. The official sanctions list includes Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, President Vladimir Putin’s adviser Sergei Glazyev, Russian Armed Forces General Staff chief Valery Gerasimov and Dmitry Kiselyov, who many regard as the Kremlin’s chief propagandist. There also are 37 entities targeted by EU sanctions. They include companies active in Crimea and military battalions formed by Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The EU’s economic sanctions against Russia’s energy, military and financial sectors are up for renewal in June. (Rikard Jozwiak, RFE/RL)

Crimean Tatar official questioned

SYMFEROPOL – A deputy chairman of the Crimean Tatars’ self-governing body, the Mejlis, has been summoned to the Russian-run Center for Combating Extremism in Ukraine’s Russia-occupied Crimean Peninsula. Nariman Dzhelyal said he was questioned for two hours on March 13 at the Symferopol-based center about a 2016 interview he gave to a Ukrainian television channel in which he was identified as a deputy chairman of the Mejlis. Mr. Dzhelyal said he was warned that since the Mejlis is officially banned by Russian authorities, being a leader of the organization might lead to legal consequences for him. Mr. Dzhelyal said he was also questioned about recently arrested Crimean Tatar activists who are listed as “friends” on his Facebook account. In Kyiv, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Maryana Betsa said on March 13 that the questioning of Mr. Dzhelyal was an example of the “continuation” of Russia’s “repressions” in occupied Crimea. Russia’s Supreme Court in September 2016 declared the Mejlis an “extremist” organization and banned its activities in Russia, criminalizing any association with it. Another deputy chairman of the Mejlis, Ilmi Umerov, is facing a trial on separatism charges in Symferopol. Two human rights lawyers who represent Mr. Umerov also were detained and questioned in January at the so-called Center for Combating Extremism, which operates under Russia’s Internal Affairs Ministry. The U.S.-based nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch says the charges against Mr. Umerov and other Crimean Tatars are “bogus” and “related to their vocal and public opposition of Russia’s occupation of Crimea.” An overwhelming majority of Crimean Tatars oppose the Ukrainian peninsula’s seizure and annexation by Russia. (Crimean Desk, RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service)

Poroshenko wants ban on dual citizenship

KYIV – Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has proposed a bill that would ban dual citizenship. The Verkhovna Rada said on March 14 that the amendments to the law on citizenship proposed on March 13 were sent to the parliamentary Committee for Human Rights, Ethnic Minorities and Interethnic Relations for discussion. The bill was described as urgent. Under the proposed amendments, Ukrainians would lose their citizenship if they “voluntarily” obtain citizenship in another country. They also specify that anyone who obtained Ukrainian citizenship but did not return the passports of the countries of their previous citizenship would also lose Ukrainian citizenship. The discussion of dual citizenship has come to the fore in Ukraine following unconfirmed media reports saying that suspended tax and customs service chief Roman Nasirov, who has been arrested on suspicion of corruption, holds foreign passports. (RFE/RL)

Chemical disaster threat in Ukraine’s east 

UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations has raised the alarm over the threat of a possible chemical disaster due to the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. A U.N. human rights expert said in a statement issued on March 10 that fighting has been under way in areas where large chemical and industrial facilities are located. “Battles are now being fought in cities, close to industrial centers, with factories increasingly becoming at risk of being hit: the consequences for anyone living close-by would be severe,” said Baskut Tuncak, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes. Mr. Tuncak said that a storage building containing more than 7,000 kilograms of chlorine gas was hit by shelling on February 24. No storage container was damaged in the shelling, Mr. Tuncak said. But he warned that if one single 900-kilogram container had been broken, it could have killed everyone within a 200-meter radius and could have resulted in severe health damage for those living as far as 2.4 kilometers around the damaged facility. “In case of extensive damage, people living within 7.4 kilometers downwind of the facility would need to be moved away within 24 hours,” the statement said. The U.N. statement did not specify the location or the name of the chlorine storage facility. But in a statement on February 25, the monitoring mission for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported having noticed damage caused by shelling at the Donetsk Water Filtration Station, in an area controlled by Russia-backed separatists. The OSCE statement said a drone in the area had established the damage was caused by 82 mm mortar rounds, but did not say who had fired them. Most of Ukraine’s industrial facilities are located in the eastern part of the country, where fighting between government forces and Russia-backed separatists has killed more than 9,750 people since April 2014. (RFE/RL)

Visa liberalization OK’d for Ukraine

BRUSSELS – A European Parliament committee has voted to scrap visa requirements for Ukraine in a further step to give Ukrainians easier access to European Union countries. The Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) on March 9 voted 39-4 in favor of the measure, with one abstention. The committee’s approval follows a March 1 agreement between the European Parliament and EU member states to allow access for up to 90 days during any 180-day period to Ukrainians who have biometric passports. A plenary session of the Parliament is expected to vote on the measure in Strasbourg next month, probably on April 5. The parliaments of the 28 member states will then have to individually approve the measure, most likely after the second round of the French presidential poll scheduled for May. Visa-free travel for Ukrainians could then enter into force in mid-June. (RFE/RL, with reporting by Rikard Jozwiak)

Court upholds Nasirov’s detention

KYIV – A municipal appeals court in Kyiv has upheld the two-month pretrial detention of Roman Nasirov, Ukraine’s suspended tax and customs service chief, on embezzlement charges. The appeals court also ruled on March 13 that bail allowing Mr. Nasirov to be transferred to house arrest should not be changed from the $3.7 million figure set by a lower court in Kyiv. In a rare attempt to prosecute a high-level official in Ukraine over alleged corruption, Mr. Nasirov is being investigated on suspicion of defrauding the state of 2 billion hrv ($74 million U.S.). Mr. Nasirov was suspended from his post on March 3 and a district court in Kyiv on March 7 ordered him placed in pretrial detention for two months. Dozens of demonstrators who wanted to ensure Mr. Nasirov does not escape trial rallied outside the appeals court building on March 13 as the hearing progressed. The protesters chanted “Nasirov belongs behind bars!” Ukraine’s National Anticorruption Bureau says Mr. Nasirov signed off on grace periods for a number of taxpayers, including companies linked to a former lawmaker who fled the country in 2016 while facing a corruption investigation. President Petro Poroshenko and Ukraine’s government are under pressure from Ukrainians and Western countries to fight corruption. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service)

Deputies criticize arrests of blockaders

KYIV – Ukrainian opposition lawmakers have demanded an explanation from authorities after the arrests of several dozen activists who were blocking trade with eastern areas held by Russia-backed separatists. The blockade began in January and has mainly disrupted rail shipments of coal that is mined in separatist-held territory and fuels power plants elsewhere in Ukraine. Activists and national deputies who support the blockade say coal sales have funded the separatists’ war against government forces, which has killed more than 9,750 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014. The Security Service of Ukraine (known as the SBU), said that it arrested 43 “blockader” activists at three sites on March 13 after they refused to surrender weapons. Opposition lawmakers demanded answers from President Petro Poroshenko, the Internal Affairs Ministry and the SBU on March 14 over the detentions. National Deputy Semyon Semenchenko wrote on Facebook that security forces dismantled the activists’ makeshift camp and cordoned off the area on March 14. The blockade remains intact in at least two other parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Verkhovna Rada Vice-Chair Oksana Syroyid said the activists were released early on March 14. Legislatures in the western cities of Rivne, Volyn and Ternopil held what they said were emergency meetings on the detentions on March 14. Activists staged a protest rally in central Kyiv attended by about 500 people on March 13. The blockade has caused power shortages and added to the troubles faced by Ukraine’s economy, which is drained by the war against the Russia-backed separatists. The disruptions prompted President Poroshenko to declare an emergency in late February and to urge all Ukrainians to try to conserve energy. The separatists have threatened to stop supplying coal to the government in Kyiv or companies that are not in separatist-controlled areas. (RFE/RL, with reporting by UNIAN)

Russia chooses entry for Eurovision

MOSCOW – Russia has chosen Yulia Samoilova to represent the country at the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest in Kyiv, an event some Russian pop stars and lawmakers wanted to boycott. The choice of Ms. Samoilova was announced on March 12 on Russia’s main state-run TV network, First Channel. The 28-year-old singer who has been in a wheelchair since childhood won with her song “The Flame Is Burning.” A wildly popular celebration of kitsch and pop music, Eurovision frequently takes on political undertones, despite organizers’ efforts to avoid it. Last year’s winning entry was from a Ukrainian woman who commemorated the Crimean Tatars deported en masse from the Black Sea peninsula by Joseph Stalin during World War II. That victory gave Kyiv the honor of hosting this year’s final ceremonies. But that, plus the fact that Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and fueled a separatist insurgency in the east, added political drama to this year’s decision. Some Russian lawmakers and even pop stars have called for a boycott of the Kyiv ceremony. Ukraine expects about 12,000 to 14,000 spectators to attend the competition in May, with millions more watching on television. The final ceremony will take place on May 13. (RFE/RL)

Ukraine may ban Russian entrant 

KYIV – Ukraine, which is hosting this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, is considering banning Russia’s competitor because she has performed in Russia-annexed Crimea, according to Ukraine’s main security agency, the SBU. “The SBU is looking into the issue and will take a considered decision on her entry into Ukrainian territory,” SBU spokeswoman Olena Gitlianska said in a post on Facebook on March 13. She said the decision would be based on Ukrainian law, under which Ukraine reserves the right to ban people who have visited Russia-controlled Crimea without obtaining prior permission from Kyiv. Ukraine last year blacklisted 140 Russian performing artists on those grounds. Yulia Samoilova, 27, who suffers from a rare muscular disorder and is confined to a wheelchair, performed in the Crimean city of Kerch in mid-2015, more than a year after Russia annexed and occupied the Ukrainian peninsula. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin told the Liga.net news site that “the security service is checking [Samoilova].” He added, “I think the law should be the same for everyone. Russia has been carrying out acts of provocation for many years.” But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the choice was made independently by state-run broadcaster Channel One. “We don’t see anything provocative here,” he said. “Practically everyone has been to Crimea. There is hardly anyone who has not traveled there.” He also said, “It’s clear that one should wish to avoid any politicization of Eurovision, and we believe it is absolutely unacceptable.” Last year, Russia accused Ukraine of politicizing the competition by choosing as its entrant Jamala, a Crimean Tatar, whose song decried wartime deportations of Tatars under Soviet leader Josef Stalin in the 1940s. (RFE/RL, with reporting by AFP, DPA and Reuters)

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