Seven years after Moscow annexed Crimea, arrests and trials of Crimean Tatars are used as weapons to repress this ethnic minority that has already suffered for centuries.
Persecution of Crimean Tatars has a long history, but the latest chapter began in 2014 after Russia's annexation of Crimea. And it continues to this day, in a systematic way that has largely gone unreported.
The ethnic Muslim minority of Turkic descent are indigenous to Crimea and today accounting for 13% of its population. Crimean Tatars had lived as Ukrainian citizens during the eras of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, before being caught under direct rule by Moscow seven years ago when Crimea became part of the Russia. Since then, Tatar citizens have been regularly detained and charged for being a "threat to the integrity and sovereignty of the Russian Federation and terrorist activities."
Searches, unwarranted arrests and criminal trials have taken place in violation of human rights and international laws. Ukrainian authorities have obtained reports that Russian intelligence officers regularly torture Crimean detainees and physically and psychologically abuse them.
Repeatedly, the European Union and international human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch have demanded an end to the persecution of Crimean Tatars.
Hizb-ut Tahrir treated as terrorists
The latest targeting came late last month, with more than 80 people arrested for coming to an open trial. The Tatar defendants were given harsh sentences of up to 17 years in penal colonies. The trial was against members of the religious organization Hizb-ut Tahrir, which Russia has targeted as a dangerous and radicalized group even though members are largely focused on educational activities. The profiling has occurred even though the SBU security service of Ukraine never classified Hizb-ut Tahrir as a terrorist organization and they've committed no terrorist acts and have no fundamentalist religious objectives.
Liliya Gemeji, an attorney helping to defend the Hizb-ut Tahrir organization, spoke about the situation around the detention of Crimean Tatars. She says the defendants in the Hizb-ut Tahrir case were detained in Crimea in February 2019, all accused of belonging to the political Islamic party banned in Russia since 2003. In Ukraine and elsewhere in the world, the organization operates without restriction at the level of national legislation. All of the accused were sentenced to 13 to 17 years in prison.
The international community has virtually zero effect.
One of the defendants is a human rights activist Server Mustafayev, a former coordinator of the NGO Crimean Solidarity. Mustafayev was sentenced to 14 years in a strict regime colony. "He was sentenced for talking in a mosque about needing to love for the sake of the Almighty," Gemeji explains. "He said that it is impossible not to love people, but it is possible not to love their actions that are contrary to Islam."
Gemeji says that the crimes the Tatars were convicted of were participating in a terrorist organization and also attempting to seize power and to overthrow the constitutional order in the Russian Federation.
Though largely ignored, even warnings and sanctions from the international community have had virtually zero effect on forcing Moscow to improve the situation in Crimea. And for this indigenous population of the peninsula — the Crimean Tatars — it is another painful page of history of being persecuted or even forced out of their land.
Nariman Dzhelyalov, ex-deputy chairman of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, was charged with damaging a gas pipeline in Crimea
On May 18, 1944, by order from Moscow, the Crimean Tatar population of Crimea was deported. They were accused of collaborating with the Nazis and it became one of the swiftest deportations in world history. The main phase of the forced resettlement took place within less than three days.
According to the National Movement of Crimean Tatars, a total of 238,500 people were deported from Crimea, of which 86% were women and children. About 8,000 people died on the way to the resettlement in Uzbekistan and the neighboring regions of Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.
It was only after their home territory fell under Ukrainian rule that Tatars finally got the opportunity to return to Crimea. Now, 30 years later they are on the run again — and until the situation in Russia itself changes, there is not much hope for changes in the territories it occupies.
Liliya Gemeji says the investigations and trials aimed at Tatars are structured in such a way that the defense essentially has no chance for acquittal. The prosecution makes extensive use of anonymous witnesses, who shift from case to case.
"A linguist, who is an expert in many cases in courts against Crimean Tatars, can write in her conclusion that the phrase 'I went to namaz' (make a prayer) is actually 'I went to Hamas,'" Gemeji says. "We've been living with this absurdity for several years now."
On top of the convictions of the defendants, the Russian court uses the trials to pressure others in the community. At the recent trial, more than 80 people was detained simply for coming to the court to watch the proceedings, including family members, friends, members of human rights organizations and journalists.
"These actions are aimed at intimidation," Gemiji concludes. "Yes, many are afraid, but in my opinion, the stronger the repressions, the greater the dissent."