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Russia hides Crimean Tatar prisoner of conscience suffering from Covid-19
A week has passed since Muslim Aliev’s family learned that the Ukrainian political prisoner was showing clear symptoms of Covid-19 and that a test for the deadly virus had been positive. Aliev was, reportedly, taken away and, with no information even as to his whereabouts, his family are understandably very concerned. Aliev, whom Amnesty International has recognized as a prisoner of conscience is 49 and has spent the last four years and more in the appalling conditions of Russian captivity, with this likely to have seriously undermined his state of health.
It was on 20 August that lawyer Edem Semedlyaev reported having been unable to visit Aliev or several other political prisoners who were being held, in transit, at a remand prison in Ufa (Bashkortostan). He was able to see only Arsen Dzhepparov, and was told that Aliev was feeling ill with pronounced Covid-19 symptoms, and that Refat Alimov, Inver Bekirov and Vadim Siruk had all been in contact with him, and were being kept in isolation. There is very little detail, however an officer did speak of a coronavirus test having been taken. It seems that Siruk may have also contracted the illness, but his condition was satisfactory.
That same day Ukraine’s Human Rights Ombudsperson, Lyudmila Denisova wrote that Aliev had been wrapped in some kind of film and taken away somewhere. It is not clear what Denisova’s source of information was, but a week later, with no news about Aliev’s condition or his whereabouts, his wife, Najiie, is obviously frantic with concern.
The conditions in Russian prisons are always shocking, but the worst, and most dangerous, situation is when the political prisoners are being moved, as lawyers and the men’s families can be deprived of any information about them for months. Russia is compounding all other violations of international law through its persecution of Ukrainians from Crimea by imprisoning them in Russia, thousands of kilometres from their families – and, it should be said, from the western media. The latter is not irrelevant in this case as the six Ukrainian Muslims from the Yalta region gained international publicity because of the targeting of human rights defender Emir-Usein Kuku. It was he who was first declared an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, however the international rights NGO later gave this status to all six men. Their trial and the horrific sentences that were passed received international condemnation and, like with Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, it is likely that Russia chose Bashkortostan for their imprisonment because of its distance away from Moscow, as well as from Crimea.
Kuku is the only one of the six men who has, reportedly, already reached the prison where Russia is planning to illegally hold him (Prison Colony No. 16 in Salavat (Bashkortostan).
Russia began its persecution of Crimean Muslims less than a year after its invasion and annexation of Crimea, however it took the shockingly brutal ‘operation’ on 11 February 2016 to draw international attention to this particular conveyor belt of repression. The gratuitously violent armed searches that day left small children profoundly traumatized and four men imprisoned: Muslim Aliev; Inver Bekirov; Emir-Usein Kuku and Vadim Siruk, an ethnic Ukrainian convert to Islam. Almost three months later, on 18 April 2016, two young men, Refat Alimov (the nephew of Bekirov) and Arsen Dzhepparov were also taken prisoner.
Kuku had been active in the Crimean Contact Group for Human Rights and had already faced persecution for this, including a likely attempted abduction which only turned into an ‘FSB search’ after passers-by came to Kuku’s rescue. It was thus clear immediately that the new, supposed ‘terrorism’ charges, were politically motivated.
The same, albeit for slightly different reasons, was true of Aliev who, since 2005, had played a very active role in the ‘Alushta’ Muslim Community. The Community’s independence had brought it into conflict on many occasions with the Muftiate and his family believe that this was the reason for his arrest. Although the conflict predated Russian occupation, it was the decision by the Mufti of Crimea, Emirali Ablaev in 2014 to begin collaborating with the occupation regime, that was to be fateful for Aliev and for many other Muslims. Ablaev’s reward for his loyalty to Moscow was ‘official status’ in Crimea as the only ‘correct’ Islam. He and the Muftiate are believed to have sought to strengthen their position and / or eliminate religious ‘dissidents’ by helping the FSB persecute them.
All six men were effectively accused only of unproven involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, a peaceful Muslim movement which is legal in Ukraine and most countries. The ruling by Russia’s Supreme Court in 2003 to declare it ‘terrorist’ was kept secret until it was too late to lodge an appeal and it has never been explained. The fact that nothing about the organization justifies the label of ‘terrorist’ is one of many reasons why the renowned Memorial Human Rights Centre considers all Muslims ‘convicted’ purely of alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir to be political prisoners. Memorial HRC had not even waited for a sentence in this case or any others involving Crimean Muslims since Russia, as an occupying state, is also in breach of international law for imposing its legislation on occupied Crimea.
Initially, only Aliev was designated the role of ‘organizer’ of a supposed ‘Hizb ut-Tahrir cell’, under Article 205.5 § 1 of Russia’s criminal code, with this carrying a sentence of up to life imprisonment. The other men were charged with ‘involvement’ under Article 205.5 § 2 with the sentences still appalling, but lower. Then suddenly in August 2018, after the ‘trial’ had already begun in Rostov (Russia), presiding judge Nikolai Yurevich Vasilchuk (presumably with the backing of judges Valery Sergeevich Opanasenko and Stanislav Vladimirovich Zhidkov)returned the case to the prosecutor, suggesting that Bekirov also be charged as ‘organizer’. This was a shocking abuse of the role of judges who had thus doubled up as prosecutor. In fact, there is reason to believe that other irregularities in the case which the defendants and their lawyers had drawn attention to may have prompted the decision to abort the first attempt at a ‘trial’ which, because of Kuku, was attracting a lot of attention.
By then, all six men had been charged additionally with ‘‘preparing for violent seizure of power by an organized group according to a prior conspiracy’ (Article 278). Memorial HRC has pointed out on many occasions that Russia uses this extra charge as a weapon against men who refuse to ‘cooperate’ – something that none of the Crimean Muslims has agreed to do.
Memorial has studied the ‘indictment’ and evidence and concluded that “not only did the defendants not engage in terrorist activities, but they did not carry out any publicly dangerous activities at all”.
The second trial was as flawed as the first, with ‘secret witnesses’ and assessments from FSB-loyal ‘experts’ who will find ‘proof’ of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir in any text demanded of them. All of this was ignored by ‘judges’ Roman Viktorovich Saprunov; Dmitry Viktorovich Merkulov and Roman Vladimirovich Podolsky (from the Southern District Military Court in Rostov) who, on 12 November 2019, passed the six guilty verdicts required of them. These were, on 25 June 2020, upheld by Oleg Aleksandrovich Yegorov; Aleksander Aleksandrovich Mordovin and Anatoly Valentinovich Solin. All of these men, like the ‘investigators’; the ‘experts’; prosecutors and others were fully aware that the men had never committed any crime at all when they collaborated to sentence Muslim Aliev and 55-year-old Inver Bekirov to 19 years; Emir-Usein Kukuwho and 30-year-old Vadim Siruk to 12 years; Refat Alimov (28) to 8 years and Arsen Dzhepparov (29) to 7 years. All of these sentences against innocent men involve ‘maximum security prison colonies’ where the conditions are exceptionally bad.