Voting in Referendum on Crimea Secession From Ukraine Held

by Tony Iozzo
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine – Voting in a referendum to decide whether Ukraine’s southern region of Crimea will secede from the Ukraine and become a territory of Russia, ended a short while ago.

A polling station in Simferopol. (Photo courtesy of Reuters)

Approximately 1.5 million voters were expected to show up to polls, and it is widely believed that the outcome will be that Crimea will split from the Ukraine and join Russia. Polls were open for twelve hours beginning at 6:00 GMT on Sunday.

Voters had the choice of two options on the referendum ballot: either, “are you in favor of the reunification of Crimea with Russia as a part of the Russian Federation?” or “are you in favor of restoring the 1992 Constitution and the status of Crimea as a part of Ukraine?”

If Crimea citizens choose to restore the 1992 constitution, the Crimea government would be afforded broad authority to institute its own laws and structure its governance, and it would remain an area under the Ukraine. Western countries have expressed opposition to the referendum, and most have stated that they will not recognize it. The Kremlin in Russia insists that it is an instance of self-determination by the Crimea people.

The UN Security Council overwhelmingly supported a resolution that labels the Crimea referendum as illegal. Russia attempted to veto the resolution during the Security Council’s vote, but every other member nation of the Security Council favored the resolution. China, Russia’s closest ally on the Security Council, abstained from voting which left Russia as the sole proponent of the referendum.

After the Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovich, was ousted from office last month, Russian troops occupied Crimea, as it indeed possesses a largely ethnic-Russian population. Ihor Tenyukh, Ukraine’s acting defense minister, stated that the Ukraine and Russia had agreed on a truce in Crimea until March 21, during which “no measures will be taken against our military facilities.”

Amid the voting on the referendum, Russian troops landed on a strip of land in the southeast between Crimea and the mainland, which forced the Ukraine to also dispatch an aircraft with armed forces to stop the troops’ movement.

Meanwhile, approximately 50,000 people gathered in Moscow to protest against Russia’s intervention in the Ukraine, shouting, “The occupation of Crimea is Russia’s disgrace” and “Hands off Ukraine.”

For more information, please see:

Al Jazeera – Crimeans Vote in Breakaway Referendum – 16 March 2014

BBC News – Ukraine Crisis: Crimea Holds Secession Referendum – 16 March 2014

New York Times – Under Watch of Russian Troops, Crimea Votes on Secession – 16 March 2014

Reuters – Crimea to Vote on Joining Russia, Moscow Wields U.N. Veto – 16 March 2014

Latvia Says Minister Must Go after Plans to March

By Ben Kopp
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

RIGA, Latvia – A Latvian government official has been fired for his declaration that the will march with Latvian Nazi veterans who fought off Soviets during World War II.

Many Latvians consider their Waffen SS veterans heroes who fought for Latvian independence against the Soviets. (Photo courtesy of Guardian)

At the beginning of World War II, Moscow seized Latvia in a deal with Berlin. Later, Moscow transferred approximately 15,000 Latvians to Siberia. In 1941, Germany disregarded the original deal and invaded the Soviet Union. For that reason, some Latvians claimed the Nazis were liberators, even though the Nazis went on to kill over 80% of Latvia’s Jews. By 1945, the Soviet Union had recaptured Latvia, and held it until the communist bloc dissolved fifty years later.

On 14 March 2014, Latvian Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma fired a government minister, Einars Cilinskis, who declared that he would join an annual Nazi march as a Latvian “patriot.” The Russian-speaking minority in Latvia rejected Cilinskis’ declaration, saying that the Nazi march distorts history, honors Nazism, and insults victims of World War II.

However, parade veterans insisted that their purpose was to honor the defense of Latvian homeland against Soviet occupation. Approximately 140,000 Latvians—mostly conscripts—fought in the legion, and nearly a third died either in combat or Soviet captivity. On the other hand, about 130,000 fought for the Soviets, of whom about a quarter died.

Environment Minister Einars Cilinskis planned to march with veterans of the Latvian Legion, a group formed and commanded by the Nazi SS in 1943. The parade date of March 16 marks the unsuccessful attempt to repel the Soviet invasion, which began the communist bloc’s half century of occupation. Legion veterans began marching in Riga, Latvia every March 16 since Soviet rule ended in 1991.

Prime Minister Straujuma took office in January 2014, and banned all of her ministers from joining the parade.

A spokesperson for Straujuma commented, “No minister has ever attended this event, so it is important the dismissal happens before it takes place, not afterwards.”

Efraim Zuroff of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center stated that admirers of people like Latvian SS commander Viktor Arajs “are the spiritual heirs of those who committed the crimes of the Holocaust. It is unthinkable that they should march through European Union capitals and cause unimaginable pain to Holocaust survivors and their families.”

Latvian officials worry that Russian state media might use the story to support claims of a “rebirth of fascism” in Ukraine and its other neighbors.

On the day of the march, Crimea will hold a referendum on whether to secede from Ukraine.

The marketplace of ideas often becomes closed to the most abhorred speech before speech that resides closer to the grey zone. Even when the marketplace opens, abhorred ideas become the basis of persuading others. But is that persuasion aiding better ideas?

For further information, please see:

Aljazeera – Latvian Minister Sacked over ‘Nazi’ March – March 14, 2014

Guardian – Latvia Minister Faces Sack in Nazi Memorial Row – March 14, 2014

Jewish Telegraphic Agency – Latvian Minister to Be Fired for Endorsing SS Vets – March 14, 2014

Reuters – Latvia PM to Fire Minister over Plan to Join SS March – March 14, 2014

Turkish Boy Injured in Last Year’s Protests Dies, Leads to Further Protests

by Tony Iozzo
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

ANKARA, Turkey – Clashes between riot police and protesters occurred outside of a hospital I Turkey’s capital, where a teenager passed away nine months after being injured by police officers during a different protest.

Elvan’s mother (center) surrounded by mourners. (Photo courtesy of BBC News)

Berkin Elvan, 15, was injured June last year when he was struck on the head by a tear-gas canister thrown by police officers to break up a demonstration in Okmeydan, an Istanbul district. He had been in a coma since the incident. Elvan’s health had deteriorated in recent weeks, according to his family, and his weight dropped down to thirty-five pounds. The family announced on Twitter on Tuesday: “We lost our son. May he rest in peace.”

Elvan, in a coma for 269 days, had been on his way to purchase bread in Okmeydan when he became a casualty of mass anti-government protests last year all across Turkey. The protests began in Gezi Park in Istanbul and spread all throughout Turkey. Thousands of people have been injured from the protests, while eight have died. The protests last year initially stemmed from the government’s plans to redevelop Gezi Park.

After Elvan’s death was announced on Tuesday, a large demonstration began outside the hospital where he stayed. Clashes between police officers and the demonstrators quickly ensued, and police fired tear-gas at the roughly 2,000 protestors.

Elvan’s mother appeared outside Okmeydani hospital and was quickly surrounded by mourners after the announcement of her son’s death. After word spread on social media, people gathered outside the hospital to demonstrate their anger. After riot police arrived, one of their vehicles was attacked by the demonstrators. The family relocated to a nearby Muslim prayer hall.

The crowd continued outside of the hospital, and shouted, “Berkin Elvan is our honor and he is immortal.” The crowd’s anger was precipitated as they believed that police showing up to Tuesday’s demonstration simply added insult to injury.

Other protests also occurred throughout Turkey. Large demonstrations occurred in Antalya and Izmir. Elvan’s funeral is set to take place on Wednesday.

For more information, please see:

Al Jazeera – Clashes in Turkey Over Death of Boy in Coma – 11 March 2014

BBC News – Turkey Clashes After Boy Hurt at Istanbul Protest Dies – 11 March 2014

EuroNews – Clashes in Turkey After Death of Teenager Hurt in Anti-Govt. Protests – 11 March 2014

Reuters – Death of Turkish Boy Hurt in Protests Triggers Further Unrest – 11 March 2014


Tensions Exasperated as Rival Demonstrations Held All Across Ukraine

by Tony Iozzo
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

Sevastopol, UKRAINE – Activists supporting Russian occupation of Ukraine attacked a group of pro-Ukraine activists in the Crimean city of Sevastopol on Sunday.

The Pro-Russian rally in Simferopol. (Photo courtesy of Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty)

Hundreds of activists flooded the streets on Sunday to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the life of Ukranian poet Taras Shevchenko. Pro-Russian demonstrators intervened and attacked the activists with clubs and whips.

Russian forces have occupied the Crimean region in Ukraine for roughly a week as of Sunday. The latest violence occurs amidst rival demonstrations all across the Ukraine on Sunday. Rival protests both in support of Ukrainian independence and against it peacefully occurred in Crimea’s capital city of Simferopol.

Former opposition leader Vitali Klitschko stated that the Ukraine should not be allowed to split over the current violence during a speech in the city of Donetsk. “The key priority today for all Ukrainians is to unite, to come together and to prevent provocations, prevent separatists from realizing their plans, which are partition of the country and loss of independence.”

During Klitschko’s speech, several thousand protestors gathered at Donetsk’s Lenin Square and marched to the administration building after it was seized twice this week by pro-Russian activists. The protestors lowered the Ukraine flag and raised the Russian flag.

In Kyiv, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk stated to a group of thousands that the Ukraine would not willingly cede its territory to Russia. “This is our land, our parents and grandparents spilled their blood for this land. We will not give up a single centimeter of Ukrainian land. Let Russia and Russian President [Vladimir Putin] know this.”

Prime Minister Yatsenyuk later also stated that he would be traveling to Washington, D.C. this week to discuss the impasse with Russia. U.S. President Barack Obama will meet with Yatsenyuk on the 12th to discuss the situation. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry telephoned Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday to advise that any steps taken by Russia to annex Crimea to Russia would close diplomatic relations with the United States.

Russia is continuing to exercise greater control over Crimea. Ukraine’s State Border Service stated that Russian military forces took control of a Ukrainian border guard post early this morning, and now control eleven border guard posts in Crimea.

Pro-Russian authorities in Crimea have called a referendum to be held on the 16th to decide on whether to split from Ukraine and join Russia.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from office last month after months of protests against his free-trade agreement with the European Union. Russian military forces quickly after Yanukovych left office.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has defended the planned referendum to European leaders.

For information, please see:

9News World – Violent Clashes at Rival Ukraine Rallies – 9 March 2014

Al Jazeera – Ukraine Plans Rallies as Crisis Deepens – 9 March 2014

BBC News – Ukraine Gripped by Rival Rallies – 9 March 2014

Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty – Ukraine Clashes as Rival Rallies Boost Tensions – 9 March 2014


Alleged Former Auschwitz Guards Released

By Ben Kopp
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

BERLIN, Germany – Amidst the last chance effort to bring Nazi war criminals to justice before they die, German courts have released four alleged former SS guards in two weeks.

Auschwitz was the largest death camp during World War II, and killed approximately 1.5 million people. (Photo courtesy of Chicago Tribune)

In February 2014, police arrested three elderly men after searching six homes in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg. Police based their search on information from the Central Office of the Judicial Authorities for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes.

Prosecutors stated that “significant evidence” suggested the men could be charged as accessories to murder for serving as Auschwitz guards. The complex of camps at Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland witnessed the deaths of approximately 1.5 million Jewish, Roma, and Polish persons. Under German privacy guidelines, their names were withheld.

During the week of 3 March 2014, the alleged SS guards of the Auschwitz death camp have been released from custody. However, prosecutors claim the investigation against them will continue.

Germany began a push to prosecute all remaining SS guards under a new legal doctrine, which considers an accessory to murder anyone who worked at extermination camps, even absent evidence of any personal violent acts.

One of the men was freed due to failing health, while another was released on bail, and the third’s detention was successfully challenged. A week before, yet another man, Hans Lipschis, was released because he suffers from dementia.

“The court has refused to open the trial,” a court statement said of Lipschis. “The chamber is of the opinion that the 94-year-old is incapable of standing trial. It bases this judgment on its own personal impression and the opinion of a psychiatrist.”

In 2013, Lipschis claimed that he left his position as a cook at Auschwitz to fight on the Eastern Front toward the end of World War II. However, he could not remember which unit he joined.

For a total of thirty, 26 other living men are believed to be former SS guards from Auschwitz. In February 2014, prosecutors ordered a search for Nazi-era documents from several German states, as several crimes from that era have gone unpunished in Germany.

Much difficulty came from a 1969 federal court ruling, which required proof of individual guilt to prosecute a defendant. In 2011, the precedent changed when a Munich court relied on personnel records to convict former Sobibor guard John Demjanjuk of aiding and abetting 28,000 murders. Demjanjuk died in a nursing home.

To achieve justice, strong efforts must be made to collect sufficient evidence that will be determinative of whether alleged war criminals are who prosecutors believe they are.

For further information, please see:

Washington Post – 3 Auschwitz Guard Suspects Released from Custody – March 6, 2014

Haaretz – Ailing  Auschwitz Guard Suspect Granted Bail in Germany – March 5, 2014

Chicago Tribune – Ex-Chicagoan, a Suspected Auschwitz Guard, Found Unfit for Trial – February 28, 2014

Independent – Three Suspected Ex-SS Auschwitz Guards Arrested in Germany – February 21, 2014

Reuters – Three Suspected Former Auschwitz Guards Arrested in Germany – February 20, 2014