STRASBOURG, France (CN) – Russia and Ukraine met once again in court Wednesday to present evidence in another case stemming from the annexation of Crimea.
Lawyers for both sides presented oral arguments this morning before taking questions from the 20-judge panel at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France.
The complaint against Russia was filed by Ukraine in 2014 and alleges that, since Russia annexed the Autonomous Republic of Crimea in February 2014, it has killed, tortured and otherwise harmed anyone opposed to Russian rule in the region.
Wednesday’s hearing focused on whether or not the human rights court would accept the case. Individuals, groups, and nongovernmental organizations, as well as states, can bring complaints before the court. There have been 24 such “inter-state” cases since the court’s founding in 1954.
The three-hour hearing opened before a packed courtroom with statements from Russian. The hearing was simultaneously translated into French and Russian for the benefit of a large group of Russian lawyers and law students who had traveled to attend the hearing.
Mikhail Galperin, who is deputy minister of justice of the Russian Federation, complained about having to go first, as it meant he could not respond directly to what Ukraine would say in their opening remarks. Both countries are offered the opportunity to reply to remarks at the end of the hearing.
Galperin broadly presented the Russian position, calling the complaint a “political application” and arguing that the alleged victims had very little in common and any misdeeds could not be considered a human rights violation, as they were not directed at a particular group.
Later on, Ukraine’s deputy minister of justice, Ivan Lischyna, pointed out that the victims all had one thing in common: They opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Michael Swainston, of Brick Court Chambers, represented Russia’s legal position and argued that most of the evidence offered by Ukraine was fabricated, including an allegation that photos provided by investigative journalism website Bellingcat were altered using artificial intelligence.
“Ukraine has offered any evidence that there has been a coordinated effort, only examples of miscellaneous crimes,” Swainston said.
Swainston also argued that Russia’s presence in Ukraine was legal. He claimed that, because the current Ukrainian government came to power following pro-democracy protests that forced the ouster of its previous prime minister, it was illegal itself and thus could not object to the Russian presence on the peninsula.
Following Swainston’s remarks, Ukraine presented its evidence with Lischyna outlining the Ukrainian position. He described a number of incidents which he concluded showed a “pattern of human rights violations that are alleged to have been committed by the Russia State and their proxies during the military coup and the subsequent occupation.”
Ukraine’s lawyer, Ben Emmerson of Monckton Chambers, defended Ukraine’s evidence and pointed out that the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had found repeated human rights abuses in Crimea by the Russian Federation or its proxies. “In fact,” Emmerson said, “Russian abuses have threatened the very existence of the Tatar people in Crimea.”
The Tatars are a group of Turkic-speaking people indigenous to the region.
Ukraine and Russia previously faced off at the U.N.’s highest court, the International Court of Justice, on the issue of Russian financing of militias operating in Crimea. The ECHR is dealing with similar allegations stemming from events in Eastern Ukraine and Donbas in a separate case.
After the countries made their statements, several judges took the opportunity to ask questions, including Judge Aleš Pejchal who wanted to know if both sides were willing to compromise to find a friendly settlement on the issue.
Swainston, on behalf of Russia, pointed out that Ukraine and Russia had recently exchanged prisoners, which he said was evidence that Russia is willing to compromise.
However, he continued the argument that the evidence Ukraine submitted to the court was compromised, claiming that Human Rights Watch, which has detailed accounts of human rights violations in Crimea, could have been duped.
For Ukraine, Emmerson criticized Russia for the downing of flight MH17, a passenger jet which was shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014.
He finished with a rousing call for the court to get involved in the situation in Crimea.
“The people who have remained loyal to Ukraine have been systematically targeted by Mr. Swainston’s clients for human rights violations from the beginning that are going on today with no proper system of accountability,” Emmerson said.
The court is expected to decide on whether to move forward with the case by the end of the year.