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In the shadow of war, Kremlin continues terrorizing Crimean Tatars

by Anastasiia Lapatina October 12, 2022 9:09 PM 8 min read
Crimean Tatars pray at a mosque near Bakhchysarai, a city in Russian-occupied Crimea, in Sept. of 2016. (Alina Smutko)
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They usually come at four or five in the morning.

Men in uniform and with guns pull up in large vehicles. The dogs start barking. The family wakes up, knowing exactly what is about to happen. The house is searched. Phones and computers are taken away. And so is the father, or a brother, or another male relative, who is almost always suspected of terrorism – a charge they deny.

This is a typical scene in Crimean Tatar homes in Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula that has been occupied by Russia since 2014. After declaring annexation, the Kremlin began a targeted campaign against the indigenous Muslim population of Crimea, which has been outspoken against the Russian occupation regime. According to the Crimean Tatar Resource Center (CTRC), 70% of all political prisoners on the peninsula are Crimean Tatars.

The Ukrainian government, together with local and international human rights groups, say Russia has been fabricating administrative and criminal cases against them to silence resistance.

More than seven months into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Crimean Tatars continue being a target of sham trials. They are also forcefully mobilized to fight against Ukraine on the Russian side.

“(Russia’s mobilization of Crimean Tatars) is a demonstrative action to punish the Crimean Tatars… who didn’t support the occupiers all these years and now actively supported the actions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and opposed the war,” said Tamila Tasheva, the Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea in late September on Facebook.

As international attention is focused on Russia’s numerous atrocities in mainland Ukraine, many of Moscow’s repressions against Crimean Tatars go unnoticed.

Genocidal history

Crimean Tatar troubled history with Russia goes deep into the eighteenth century.

A Ukrainian ethnic minority of Turkic origin, the Tatars first formed a state – the Crimean Khanate – back in 1441. It was overrun by the Ottoman Empire just three decades later, but the Khanate continued to enjoy a great deal of sovereignty within the empire.

In 1783, after years of fighting between the Russians and Ottomans, Crimea became a part of the Russian Empire. As a result of Russian land grabs and russification policies, including the crushing of the Crimean Tatar national movement, hundreds of thousands of Crimean Tatars were forced to flee. And by 1939, what once was Crimea’s dominant population became a minority – almost 219,000 people, or roughly just 20% of the population.

In 1944, the Soviet regime unsubstantially accused Crimean Tatars of en masse collaboration with the Nazis, who occupied the Crimean Peninsula for two years during World War II. Soon after, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin ordered the deportation of all Crimean Tatars from Crimea. Estimates vary, but roughly 180,000 Crimean Tatars – the majority of its population at the time – were put on trains within three days, and deported to Russia’s far east, mainly Uzbekistan. Crimean Tatar men who were fighting in the Red Army ranks were sent to labor camps. Half of those who were deported died during the deportation, or within the first few years of their resettlement due to diseases and hunger.

This tragedy, known as Sürgün, is recognized as genocide by Ukraine.

Not without hardship, Crimean Tatars were allowed to return home only in the late 1980s, after nearly 40 years in exile.

Targeted, again

When Russia illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014, Crimean Tatars became scapegoats again.

According to the Crimean Tatar Resource Center, 188 Crimean Tatars have been prosecuted in criminal cases since 2014.

The majority was charged with terrorism for alleged links to Hizb ut-Tahrir – a pan-Islamist political party that operates legally in Ukraine and most countries around the world but was banned in Russia in 2003.

Russian authorities have used regular Islamic activities, like discussions and prayers in mosques and the reading of Islamic literature as evidence of terrorist links. Crimean Tatars, as well as their spouses, experience religious profiling – in 2020, Russian authorities interrogated several women to compile lists of those who converted to Islam, asking them about their faith and practices.

Other sham charges have included sabotage, organization of riots, plotting for a violent seizure of power, and separatism.

Hundreds have also been subjected to fines and administrative arrests for voicing dissent or showing solidarity with their community via protests, anti-Kremlin posts on social media, and other actions.

Children listen to a call to prayer of the local muezzin before the Iftar in the Abdullaiev family house in the Strogonovka village near Simferopol, Crimea. (Alina Smutko)

The international community, along with the Ukrainian government and human rights advocates, deem the charges fabricated only to serve the Kremlin’s political purposes. Some charges are plainly absurd, such as a terrorism charge based on Islamic literature found in the house of a man who is blind, hence unable to read.

Some of the Kremlin’s most recent victims are Nariman Dzhelyalov and Akhtemov brothers, Asan and Aziz. On Sept. 21, a Russian court sentenced them for 17,15, and 13 years at a maximum security prison, respectively. The three Crimean Tatars were convicted of sabotage for allegedly co-conspiring with Ukrainian security services to blow up a gas pipeline in one of Crimea’s villages – an accusation they deny.

The case is notable because Dzhelyalov is the First Deputy Head of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People – the community’s self-governing representative body on the peninsula, which Russia also banned for being “extremist” in 2016. Mejlis Chairman Refat Chubarov, who’s been in exile in Kyiv since 2014, was also sentenced in absentia to six years in prison for separatism.

Crimean Tatar lawyers regularly expose severe violations by Russian security services and the courts. Those arrested continuously report being beaten and tortured, including with electric shocks, death threats, and mock executions.

Crimean Tatars Asan Akhtemov (L), Nariman Dzhelyalov (C), and Aziz Akhtemov during a court trial on Sept. 21, 2022, wearing shirts that quote Ukraine’s anthem and say “Two flags – One country.” The three men were sentenced to 15, 17, and 13 years in prison respectively in a sabotage case that activists and lawyers say was fabricated by the Kremlin. (Elmaz Qirimli/Facebook)

“The main violations prevalent in Crimea are, first and foremost, the fabrication of these cases through the formation of a false evidence base, as well as self-incrimination, witness intimidation, and the use of torture against both witnesses and the accused,” lawyer Nikolai Polozov told the Kyiv Independent.

Polozov has worked on multiple Crimean cases, including high-profile cases against the former Mejlis Chairman and the veteran of the Crimean Tatar national movement Mustafa Dzhemilev. Polozov also defended Dzhelyalov and Akhtemov brothers.

Both Asan and Aziz Akhtemov, as well as four witnesses brought forward by the court – also Crimean Tatars – were tortured by Russian authorities to confess or give false testimony, Polozov told the Kyiv Independent.

Another common Russian tactic is the use of secret witnesses whose identity is concealed supposedly for security reasons. Those are either Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agents, police, or locals who had legal issues and agreed to give false testimony in exchange for impunity, Polozov says. Authorities make it impossible to cross-examine these testimonies – in one case alone, the court rejected over a hundred questions by Polozov that could somehow connect the witnesses to the matter at hand.

“In the case of Dzhelyalov, the prosecution wasn’t able to present a single piece of material evidence to connect Asan, Aziz, and him to the alleged crime,” Polozov said.

“The entire case was built on the secret witnesses and testimony obtained through torture.”

Shadow of war

For years, the main vehicle of activism in support of Crimean Tatars was the media. But when Russia’s all-out war began on Feb. 24, the media attention which was already scarce virtually disappeared.

“There is an avalanche of terrible news coming from Ukraine…to some extent, the level of struggle and resistance that exists in Crimea is still tolerable, compared to what is happening to people now in Ukraine,” a leading Crimean Tatar activist and journalist Lutfiye Zudiyeva told the Kyiv Independent. Zudiyeva works with the peninsula’s main non-profit, Crimean Solidarity, which was founded by the Tatars after the annexation.

While the global attention went elsewhere, Russian repressions in Crimea continued and even reached new levels.

“There were certain red lines that Russian security forces did not cross until February,” such as the prosecution of women and lawyers, Zudiyeva said.

Selsabil, the daughter of Uzeir Abdullaiev, shows a photo of her father, which she quietly made on her mobile phone in the courtroom. In 2016, Abdullaiev was arrested on accusations of being a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic party that was banned by Russia. (Alina Smutko)

In spring, Russian authorities abducted and tortured Iryna Danylovych, an activist and journalist who worked with local human rights initiatives. She was accused of carrying 200 grams of explosives in the case of her glasses, which she says were planted.

Months later, Russia took away licenses from three prominent Crimean Tatar lawyers, barring them from defending clients in criminal cases – an unprecedented move, according to one of the lawyers Nazim Sheikhmambetov.

While the overall amounts of house raids and arrests of Crimean Tatars decreased compared to the first six months of 2020 and 2021, Lutfiye says new risks have emerged. In March of 2022, Russia passed laws criminalizing the public discreditation of its army, basically outlawing any dissent voiced against its war in Ukraine.

“These laws are primarily aimed at journalists, human rights activists, and lawyers… and in Crimea, this legislation is applied in exactly the same way as in Russia,” Zudiyeva said.

Mobilized by the enemy

Another blow came to the Crimean Tatar community when the Kremlin announced what it called “partial mobilization” to reinforce its army fighting in Ukraine on Sept. 21.

The Ukrainian government said Russia was mobilizing a disproportionately high number of Crimean Tatars, looking for adult men in Crimean Tatar villages or other places of their congregation. The numbers are hard to estimate, but according to Crimean activists, at least 1,500 Crimean Tatars were drafted in the first three days of the mobilization.

The outcry of the Crimean Tatar community prompted a response from President Volodymyr Zelensky, who released a video address calling the mobilization “another element of Russia's genocidal policy.”

"Criminal mobilization is used by Russia not only to prolong the suffering of people in Ukraine and further destabilize the world but also to physically destroy men — representatives of indigenous peoples who live in the territories controlled by Russia… This is a calculated imperial policy,” Zelensky said.

Involving the local population of the occupied territory in the armed formations of the occupying state is a war crime, according to Tasheva.

Lemara Omerova, together with her grandson, starts crying as she recounts her family members being arrested by Russian security services. Her husband, as well as her son and her son-in-law, are all in Russian prisons on fabricated charges of terrorism. (Taras Ibragimov)

One of the reasons for this policy is “accumulated revenge” against the Crimean Tatar population, Tasheva argued.

“Revenge for the support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty… And for active resistance to occupation and repression. For disobeying the Russian repressive machine. And, of course, for the work of human rights activists.”

Tasheva also thinks the Kremlin may be trying to ruin relationships between Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainian citizens with the hope of capitalizing on that conflict in the future – a tactic the Russian security services have been famous for.

The Ukrainian government publicized guides on how to hide from mobilization in Crimea and even encouraged Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians to surrender and fight with the Ukrainian army instead.

In yet another act of resistance to Russian occupation, Crimean Tatars try to avoid mobilization, Zudiyeva says.

“For them, the Russian army is the same army that in 1944 put their grandparents on trains (during the deportation),” she said. “For many, this is a question of historical memory.”


Note from the author:

Hi there, I am Anastasiia Lapatina, the person who wrote this piece for you. For centuries, Russia has been terrorizing the Crimean Tatar people, expelling them from their homeland and destroying their culture and history. With Russia’s repressions continuing to this day, we think it’s crucial to shine a light on such stories. Please consider supporting us so we can continue telling the world about Russia’s crimes in Ukraine.

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