Mustafa Dzhemilev, a Ukrainian lawmaker, human rights defender, and former head of the Crimean Tatar local parliament, received the Hero of Ukraine award on Nov. 13.
President Volodymyr Zelensky presented the award to Dzhemilev on his 80-year-old birthday, thanking him "for protecting the freedom of Ukraine and the Crimean Tatar people."
"A strong, worthy, courageous person. A life devoted to protecting the people's will," Zelensky said on Telegram after the ceremony.
"I wished (him) what we all want: victory for Ukraine and freedom for all parts of our country. And we are doing everything to bring the liberation of Crimea closer."
Dzhemilev said it was a great honor for him to receive the Hero of Ukraine title, usually awarded to Ukrainian soldiers.
"This is also a great moral support for our compatriots, who have been under occupation already for 10 years," Dzhemilev told Zelensky. "Your words that this war cannot be ended until the last one square meter of our land is liberated gives us confidence that we will regain freedom."
Dzhemilev, born in Crimea in 1943, is a prominent leader of Crimean Tatars, the indigenous people of the Crimean peninsula, illegally annexed by Russia in 2014. He condemned the Russian occupation of Crimea and didn't recognize the sham referendum held by Russia to justify the annexation.
When he was only six months old, Dzhemilev, his family, and the rest of the Crimean Tatar population were deported by Soviet authorities. Having grown up in Uzbekistan, Dzhemilev joined the Crimean Tatar resistance movement, advocating for the people's right to return to their homeland.
For his activism, Dzhemilev served a total of 14 years in Soviet prisons, famously undergoing one of the longest hunger strikes in the history of human rights movements, which lasted for 303 days.
He headed the Mejlis, a representative body of the Crimean Tatar people, from its establishment in 1991 to 2013. Occupying Russian forces banned the Mejlis in 2016, declaring it an "extremist organization."
In 2014, Dzhemilev became the first presidential representative in the affairs of the Crimean Tatars.