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Crimean Tatars face 20-year sentences for opposing seizure of their mosque

19.04.2021
Halya Coynash

From left clockwise Ruslan Mesutov, Ruslan Nagayev, Lenur Khalilov, Eldar Kantimirov, Yukhary-Dzhami Mosque

The four recognized Crimean Tatar political prisoners from Alushta whose trial at the notorious Southern District Military Court in Rostov (Russia) is now ending include the head of the ‘Alushta’ religious community and one of its members.  They are not the first representatives of this Muslim community to be facing persecution on varying pretexts under Russia’s occupation of Crimea.  While one reason is doubtless Russia’s intolerance of any religious independence, the men’s arrest in June 2019 came two weeks before the community’s legal challenge against the occupation authorities’ attempt to seize the 19th century Yukhary-Dzhami Mosque which the community has legally occupied since 1994. 

A particularly disturbing aspect of this is the role played by the Muftiate, or Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Crimea.  This body has chosen to collaborate with the Russian occupation regime and is believed to be using its ‘official status’ against religious communities which it views as too independent.  In the case of the ‘Alushta’ community, it has a further vested interest, namely the Yukhary-Dzhami Mosque which would fall under its control. 

While the extent remains unclear, there does appear to be collaboration between the Russian enforcement bodies and the current Mufti Emirali Ablayev.  On 30 March 2021, representatives of the Muftiate took part, together with the Russian FSB, so-called centre for countering extremism, and prosecutor’s office, in an effective raid on the Yukhary-Dzhami Mosque.  They moved together around the premises, taking videos and removing three books – on the ethics of business in Islam; the family and Islam; as well, seemingly, as one about relations between a man and woman, written by a Russian religious figure.  Members of the community were told that a check was underway as to whether ‘Alushta’ complies with Russian legislation on freedom of conscience and on countering so-called ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’, with a member of the community (Ruslan Emirvaliev) summoned for questioning.

It should be stressed that there are a suspicious range of pretexts being used against the community.  On 10 June 2020, exactly a year after the arrests, the Russian-controlled Alushta City Court found ‘Alushta’ Imam Yusuf Ashirov guilty of so-called ‘unlawful missionary activities’ for leading prayers in his own mosque, and fined him, with this sentence later upheld at appeal level. There has been at least one administrative prosecution against Ruslan Emirvaliev.  over an innocuous picture posted on social media, as well as harassment and attempts to get him removed from the community,

It is impossible not to view the arrests on 10 June 2019 in the context of this unrelenting offensive against the ‘Alushta’ community and other ‘dissident’ Muslims.  As part of a series of nine armed searches and arrests in three different parts of Crimea, the head of the community, Lenur Khalilov was arrested, together with an active member, Ruslan Mesutov.   Ruslan Nagayev and Eldar Kantimirov are both also devout Muslims and active in their religious communities.  All of the men had shown solidarity in the face of the mounting repression under Russian occupation, with Kantimirov in particular visiting court hearings and taking part in single-person pickets.  Like many other Crimean Tatar civic activists or journalists, Kantimirov first faced administrative prosecution, before facing grotesque criminal charges when the first prosecutions failed to silence him.

In fact, three members of the ‘Alushta’ community are imprisoned on internationally condemned ‘terrorism’ charges.  Muslim Aliev, a recognized political prisoner and Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, has already been sentenced to 19 years’ imprisonment without any crime. 

In declaring the men political prisoners, the authoritative Memorial Human Rights Centre stated that the men were charged under Russia’s terrorism articles, without actually being accused of terrorism and were imprisoned for the “non-violent exercising of their right to freedom of conscience, religion and association”. 

The Crimean Muslims are guilty only of being participants in religious organizations”.  Memorial also notes that “the convenient and customary accusation of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir has become a weapon for crushing solidarity movements in Crimea”.

While the human rights NGO reiterates in all of these cases that Russia is in breach of international law by applying Russian legislation on occupied territory, such religious persecution also violates Russia’s own Constitution which guarantees freedom of conscience.

The men are accused solely of unproven ‘involvement’ in Hizb ut-Tahrir, a peaceful transnational Muslim movement which is legal in Ukraine. Russia has never explained why, in 2003, it declared a movement that is not known to have committed acts of terrorism or violence anywhere in the world ‘terrorist’.  In this case, Khalilov and Mesutov are charged with the more serious ‘organizer’ role under Article 205.5 § 1 of Russia’s criminal code, with this carrying a likely sentence of 19-20 years.  Eldar Kantimirov and Ruslan Nagayev are accused of ‘involvement in such an alleged ‘group’ (Article 205.5 § 2), with the sentences also between 10 and 20 years.   They are also charged, under Article 278, with ‘planning to violently seize power’, an especially cynical charge given that the armed men who burst into their homes early on 10 June 2019 did not even pretend to look for weapons or explosives, only ‘prohibited literature’.

The entire ‘case’ against them appears to be based on illicit tapes of conversations which FSB-loyal ‘experts’ assess as required, and the entirely unverifiable ‘testimony’ of secret witnesses who may, in fact, have never ever met the men.  The refusal by the court (presiding judge Roman Viktorovich Saprunov together with Maxim Mikhailovich Nikitin and Rizvan Abdullayevich Zubairov)  to force these alleged ‘witnesses’ to identify themselves is just one of the many ways in which the judges seem to work in cooperation with the prosecution (Dmitry Volkov and Yevgeny Kolpikov).

The four men are all in their fifties and would be unlikely to survive the huge sentences which they are facing. 

PLEASE WRITE TO THE MEN!

The letters tell them they are not forgotten, and show Moscow that the ‘trial’ now underway is being followed. 

Letters need to be in Russian, and on ‘safe’ subjects.  If that is a problem, use the sample letter below (copying it by hand), perhaps adding a picture or photo. Do add a return address so that the men can answer.

NO sample letter of condolences.  Such letters are enormously difficult to write even in your own language, and letters are, in any case, taking a long time to get to political prisoners because of the pandemic.

The address is below and can be written in either Russian or in English transcription.  The particular addressee’s name and year of birth need to be given.

Sample letter

Привет,

Желаю Вам здоровья, мужества и терпения, надеюсь на скорое освобождение. Простите, что мало пишу – мне трудно писать по-русски, но мы все о Вас помним.

[Hi.  I wish you good health, courage and patience and hope that you will soon be released.  I’m sorry that this letter is short – it’s hard for me to write in Russian., but you are not forgotten. ] 

Eldar Kantimirov

344064, Россия, Ростов-на-Дону,  ул. Тоннельная, 4, СИЗО-5

Кантимирову, Эльдару Шкуриевичу, 1980 г.р.

 [In English:  344064, Russia, Rostov on the Don, 4 Tonnelnaya St., SIZO-5

Kantimirov, Eldar, b. 1980 ]

Lenur Khalilov

344064, Россия, Ростов-на-Дону,  ул. Тоннельная, 4, СИЗО-5

Халилову, Ленуру Абдурамановичу, 1967 г.р.

 [In English:  344064, Russia, Rostov on the Don, 4 Tonnelnaya St., SIZO-5

Khalilov, Lenur, b. 1967 ]

Ruslan Mesutov

344022, Россия, Ростов-на-Дону, ул. Максима Горького, 219 СИЗО-1.

Месутову, Руслану Аметовичу, 1965 г.р.

 [In English:  344022 Russian Federation, Rostov on the Don, 219 Maxim Gorky St, SIZO-1

Mesutov, Ruslan, b. 1965]

Ruslan Nagayev

344064, Россия, Ростов-на-Дону,  ул. Тоннельная, 4, СИЗО-5

Нагаев Руслан Серверович, b. 1964

 [In English:  344064, Russia, Rostov on the Don, 4 Tonnelnaya St., SIZO-5

Nagayev, Ruslan, b. 1964]

 

 

 

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