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Russia arrests 55-year-old Crimean Tatar as “fighter of a Ukrainian battalion”
Russia has seized another Ukrainian political prisoner in occupied Crimea, bringing to at least five the number of new hostages since the only major exchange of prisoners to date, in September 2019. While the FSB are revealing virtually no details, it is clear that the 55-year-old Crimean Tatar can be considered a political prisoner, as he is charged with being a member of the Noman Çelebicihan (or Asker) Battalion, which is legal in Ukraine and, despite the name, not an armed formation. Russia has banned it, and systematically tries to demonize it, including through arrests of Crimean Tatars who, according to its founder, Crimean Tatar businessman Lenur Islyamov, do not have any involvement in the battalion.
One of the main objectives of these arrests is their propaganda value with Russian and Russian-controlled media claiming, for example, that “The FSB in Crimea have detained a Ukrainian national battalion fighter” and showing the FSB in full military gear bursting into the latest victim’s home. While the FSB do not identify their alleged ‘fighter’, he is very clearly an older man who is shown signing one of the documents at a table next to several packages clearly containing his medication.
The FSB in Sevastopol reported the arrest on 17 February, identifying the person only as a resident of the Chornomorska district of Crimea and saying that he had been remanded in custody. According to the Ukrainian journalist initiative Grati, the person is 61-year-old Crimean Tatar Nariman Nezhmudinov, who was seized over a week ago.
This delay and the lack of any information about the detained man make it very easy for the FSB to keep him without an independent lawyer and put pressure on him to ‘confess’ to any charges.
The FSB claim that the detained man “is suspected of taking part in the activities of an unlawful armed formation [UAF], acting on the territory of a foreign country for purposes which are against the interests of the Russian Federation”. They assert that he left for mainland Ukraine in the summer of 2016 and joined the battalion. He is supposed to have subsequently returned to Crimea but claim that “having the real possibility of voluntarily ending his participation in the UAF, he did not turn to the law enforcement bodies with a statement to this effect, and thus continued his criminal participation in the battalion”.
It is certainly true that the Noman Çelebicihan Battalion is opposed to Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, which the current regime could consider “against its interests”. Wanting an end to Russia’s occupation of Crimea does not make the battalion illegal and the claim that it is an armed formation is simply false. The battalion was formed on 1 January 2016 from people who had taken part in the essentially peaceful civic blockade of Crimea from 20 September 2015. It remains a relatively small formation whose role at present is merely to back the Ukrainian border guards in areas near the administrative border with occupied Crimea. Islyamov has long indicated that this is a Crimean formation, not only Crimean Tatar. While they would be willing to serve in the Armed Forces in the area of conflict in Donbas, the steps needed to formalize such service have yet to be taken.
Despite the lack of any evidence of involvement in the Battalion and its entirely legal status in Ukraine, Russia has already sentenced at least three Crimean Tatars on these charges and has brought a number of similar charges against other Crimean Tatars in absentia.
On 28 August 2019, the Russian-controlled Kirov District Court sentenced 22-year-old Dilyaver Gafarov to 10 years in a maximum security prison on the same unproven charge of involvement in a legal formation. The de facto prosecutor claimed that Gafarov was part of a group of reconnaissance agents and that he was Islyamov’s personal guard. Gafarov denied any such involvement in the Battalion (details here).
On 25 January 2019, Fevzi Sahandzhy was sentenced to 10.5 years despite the young man’s allegations of torture and the same fatally flawed charges. On 14 May, a panel of ‘judges’, led by Oleg Lebed, from the Russian-controlled Crimean High Court confirmed the sentence, The Russian and Russian-controlled media reported Sahandzhy’s arrest (or at least the arrest of a 24-year-old Crimean Tatar) in March 2018. He asserts that he was seized by FSB officers in October 2017 and that they had forced him, under torture, to sign various documents. The flawed nature of this prosecution is made all the more disturbing by the fact that there are no photographs of Sahandzhy himself.
Then on 13 June 2019, the same Kirov District Court sentenced Edem Kadyrov to four years’ imprisonment and a further year of restricted liberty, also for supposed involvement in the Battalion. Virtually nothing is known about Kadyrov, except that he is 25 and that Russia claims that he too was Islyamov’s personal guard, which Islamov denies.