U.N. rights official says Crimea's Tatars 'feel threatened'

UNITED NATIONS Fri Mar 14, 2014 5:11pm EDT

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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A senior U.N. human rights official who has been effectively denied entry to Crimea expressed concern on Friday about the region's ethnic minority Tatars, saying they felt threatened and were afraid for their future.

Sunni Muslims of Turkic origin and making up 12 percent of Crimea's population of two million, Tatars say they are apprehensive about the prospect of the region leaving Ukraine and becoming part of Russia in a referendum this Sunday.

Ivan Simonovic, U.N. assistant secretary-general for human rights, said the number of Tatars fleeing Crimea had so far not been "massive", adding that he had met some of them in the Ukrainian city of Lviv.

"They were not complaining about direct violations against them, but they were obviously afraid," he said in a news briefing via video link from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. "They feel threatened."

Simonovic called the 260,000-270,000 Tatars in Crimea "special objects of our concern," as an indigenous population that had twice in history been deported from Crimea.

Worried they might disrupt Crimea's transition to Russian from Ukrainian control, the Kremlin and the peninsula's Russian-backed authorities have been working hard to win them over, even inviting one of their spiritual leaders to a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

Crimea's pro-Russian authorities have held out the promise of guaranteed Tatar representation in the local government, proper land ownership rights - something many Tatars lack - and financial aid. They have also pledged to extend gas supplies to remote Tatar areas.

Simonovic said he had been unable to visit Crimea as the authorities there had said they "would not receive the mission, nor ensure its security."

He said that even though U.N. monitors had not been allowed in, it was still possible to get an accurate picture of the rights situation and he had received "extensive reports" of violations against journalists and members of civil society.

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"I myself have spoken to journalists who just returned from Crimea, who were illegally detained, who were beaten, who were harassed, who were humiliated and who were victims of torture," he said. He did not say who had detained, beaten or tortured them.

Simonovic said rights violations in Crimea included denial of freedom of assembly and opinion and blocking of Ukrainian television channels "so people inhabiting Crimea are deprived of information."

He said there had been some rights violations against ethnic Russians in Ukraine, although it was unclear if these were related to ethnicity or affiliation with the previous pro-Russian government in Kiev.

"There is no evidence that those violations are either widespread or systematic," he added.

Simonovic said that the United Nations was establishing a human rights monitoring mission in Ukraine following a request from its new prime minister and it would become operational on Monday for a period of three months.

Last week, another U.N. representative, Robert Serry, abandoned a mission to Crimea after he was stopped by armed men and besieged in a cafe by a crowd shouting "Russia! Russia!"

Allegations of rights abuses have come from all sides.

The new Kiev government said the former prime minister, Viktor Yanukovich, was guilty of rights abuses and murder for ordering a crackdown on protesters that left dozens dead.

Russia and pro-Russian Crimean authorities have accused the opposition and new government of abuses, including threats and harassment of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine.

(Writing and additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Tom Perry)

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