By Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Europe's leading human rights organization said on Thursday that Crimea's indigenous Muslim Tatars and other opponents of the region's annexation by Russia face persecution including police intimidation and brutality.
The Council of Europe counts both Ukraine and Russia among its 47 member states and was the first international rights body allowed into Crimea since Moscow annexed the Black Sea peninsula from Kiev in 2014, sharply aggravating tensions with the West.
The organization said in a report based on a January field trip that people in Crimea complained of unwarranted house searches, excessive use of force by law enforcers, threats of abduction and disappearances of critics.
The minority Tatar community, which overwhelmingly opposed Russia's annexation, has found itself in a most vulnerable spot as Moscow moved to assert its rule over Crimea despite it not being internationally recognized.
The CoE report said Tatars are "particularly exposed to violations and restrictions of their rights and freedoms". It said new regulations on preventing extremism are applied mainly to Tatars "as they are considered... the biggest threat of extremism and dissent towards the present order".
But the CoE said repression was wider-ranging in Crimea.
"The repression seems more targeted towards those perceived as opponents and/or those close to them, rather than reflecting a systematic policy against the Crimean Tatars as a minority, which does not exclude cases of discriminations as reported."
Moscow refers to Crimea's "reunification" with Russia, pointing to deep historical ties and saying residents of the Russian-majority region voted to split from Ukraine in 2014. Ukraine, its Western backers and monitoring groups denounced the ad hoc referendum, saying it was a sham carried out at gunpoint.
The Council of Europe report also suggested Russia's divide-and-rule policy toward the Tatars had proven successful.
Since the annexation, while restricting Tatars professing loyalty to Ukraine, Russia has sought to defuse opposition from the community as a whole with gestures such as granting legal rehabilitation to Tatars for their suffering under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, and official status to their language.
"Today some members of the Mejlis are sitting in senior local positions, while others are in exile or in prison – a clear indication of a split within the Crimean Tatar leadership," the report said.
Other complaints recorded by the CoE mission included alleged widespread corruption and trade and travel restrictions.
The Council of Europe, founded in 1949, is a regional intergovernmental organization promoting human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in member states, covering 820 million citizens.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)