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Crimean Tatar political prisoner declares hunger strike
Ruslan Zeytullaev, one of the first men tried for unproven involvement in an organization which is legal in Ukraine has demanded an end to persecution of his people, and announced a hunger strike until specific demands are met. Zeytullaev addressed his demands to the Russian military court in Rostov where he is currently being retried after his initial sentence was quashed as spoiling the FSB’s story
The 31-year-old recognized political prisoner spoke of the violations since Crimea ended up de facto under Russian jurisdiction, including abductions, killings and illegal arrests. He stated that he would refuse to take any food and put forward the following demands. All criminal prosecutions of Crimean Tatars on so-called ‘extremism’ or ‘terrorism’ charges should be dropped. He mentioned in particular the ongoing imprisonment and ‘trials’ of Crimean Tatar leader Akhtem Chiygoz, Ali Asanov and Mustafa Degermendzhy over a pre-annexation demonstration over which Russia has no jurisdiction (the ’26 February 2014 case’).
He asked to see Ukrainian representatives, and also demanded that the convictions of the other three men initially tried with him be quashed. They are serving sentences, he stressed, based solely on their religion and nationality. Nor is this only his view, but has been confirmed by international bodies, such as OSCE, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and European Parliament. He specifically notes the UN resolutions from 2016 on the forced movement of Ukrainian citizens from Crimea to Russia.
He asked that he and the three other men – Nuri Primov; Ferat Saifullaev and Rustem Vaitov – be returned, as Ukrainian citizens, to Ukraine.
He sees no other option but protest in this manner against the injustice being perpetrated. Zeytullaev’s lawyer Emil Kurbedinov clearly understands, calling this “the final act of despair given the situation with the judicial system in the Russian Federation and in this prosecution”.
Every application is rejected, and it has been clear from the outset that the very ‘trial’ is a formality, enacted in order to provide a harsher sentence, as demanded by Russia’s FSB.
Zeytullaev, the father of three small children, has been imprisoned now since January 2015. He and the other three men were the first Crimean Muslims to be arrested in Russian-occupied Crimea in early 2015, and charged with involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir. This pan-Islamist organization is not banned in Ukraine, and there is no evidence that its members have ever committed or advocated acts of terrorism anywhere in the world. Russia declared Hizb ut-Tahrir a ‘terrorist’ organization in 2003, without explaining why, and now regularly sentences Muslims to huge sentences for supposed membership of it. The renowned Memorial Human Rights Centre considers all those convicted on such charges to be political prisoners, though normally waits until after the trial is over to issue a statement.
There were no grounds for waiting in the case of the four Crimean Tatars who have been recognized political prisoners since June 2016. There could be no chance of a fair trial by definition since Russia has no right to apply its legislation on territory it is illegally occupying, and Hizb ut-Tahrir is legal in Ukraine. There was also nothing to base the trial on since there is no evidence to prove that any of the men were members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. A lot of the trial revolved around alleged activities well before Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, and the men’s opposition to annexation was also constantly raised as though pertinent.
The main ‘prosecution witness’ is Alexander Kozhemyaka, a former SBU [Ukrainian Security Service] official who switched allegiance and now works for the FSB. There is considerable evidence that he had a vested interest in a land dispute which Zeytullaev and Saifullaev won in 2012. Other prosecution witnesses essentially spoke in favour of the men in court and one said that he had signed his ‘testimony’ without reading it after being told he would also be arrested if he didn’t.
Russia standardly uses ‘secret witnesses’ in such cases. On this occasion, quite illegally, even the man’s voice was distorted, and there were long delays before he answered questions from the defence, suggesting that he was being instructed what to say. Even then, his testimony was muddled and self-contradictory.
This was all seen by the military court in Rostov on the Don. Judges in Russia do not buck the FSB and prosecutor, who had demanded a 17-year sentence for Zeytullaev and 7 or 8 years for the others. The judge did, however, behave with some degree of integrity in that the charges against Zeytullayev were changed from being the supposed organizer, to simply taking part in a Hizb ut-Tahrir group (Article 205 § 2, instead of the more serious 205 § 1). He was convicted of the latter and sentenced to 7 years, the other men getting the minimum sentences under the charge – 5 years.
It is an indicative of the state of the Russian judicial system that the 5 and 7-year sentences for nothing were still seen as something of a ‘victory’ in that they could have been worse.
The prosecutor, however, lodged an appeal against the sentence of Zeytullaev and on Dec 27, the Russian Supreme Court ordered his ‘retrial’. Kurbedinov explains that the first court’s integrity had placed the FSB in a difficult position. They faced critical questions, most importantly, where was the leader of their supposed ‘Hizb ut-Tahrir terrorist cell’? If they’d ended up without a leader this time, how could they be sure that their other alleged ‘plots’ had leaders?
It is unfortunately clear that this time, the FSB will ensure that they get the ‘right’ sentence, with this having tragic consequences for Zeytullaev and the other Crimean Muslims who have been designated ‘organizers’ for the FSB’s paperwork.
Please write to Ruslan! It is vital that he knows – and Moscow is reminded – that he is not forgotten. Letters or postcards need to be in Russian, and should not contain any discussion of the cases or politics generally. If it is a problem to write in Russian, just copy-pasting the following will be fine.
Желаю Вам здоровья, мужества и терпения, надеюсь на скорое освобождение.
Мы о Вас помним.
[Hello, I wish you good health, courage and patience and hope that you will soon be released. You are not forgotten.
Address (Ruslan’s name is at the end, with his year of birth, which is required).
344010, Россия, Ростов-на-Дону, ул. Максима Горького, 219 СИЗО-1.
Зейтуллаеву, Руслану Борисовичу, 1985 г.р.
See Russia invades Crimea then jails Crimean Tatars, other Ukrainians for ‘terrorism’ and more information about particular prisoners imprisoned on so-called Hizb ut-Tahrir charges
April 2016 Arsen Dzhepparov and Refat Alimov