04.06.2015 | Halya Coynash

‘Azov Battalion’ Show Trial brewing in Russian-occupied Crimea


   Foul anti-Semitic graffiti that appeared within 24 hours of Russian soldiers seizing control in Simferopol.  The emblem on the right is a mirror image of that normally used by Ukrainian nationalists 

Exactly one month after the arrest in Crimea was reported of an alleged member of the ‘Azov’ Battalion, the man remains unnamed, but the list of his supposed offences now includes an attack on a synagogue and on a mosque, as well as on the prosecutor’s office.  Let’s hope the court learns his name since, according to Crimean Prosecutor Natalya Poklonskaya, this Mr ‘Azov fighter’ is facing a life sentence.

The Azov Battalion has received a great deal of attention and negative comment over the last year due to the pronounced neo-Nazi views of at least some of its leaders, and its use of an inverted Wolfsangel. This is presumably why it seems to have replaced ‘Right Sector’ as the target for dubious prosecutions in Crimea under Russian occupation.  Poklonskaya announced on May 29, for example, that criminal proceedings had been brought against Stanislav Krasnov whom she called a member of the “punitive Azov battalion”.  Krasnov is in fact the commander of the ‘Crimea’ battalion, and was on Maidan with Oleksandr Kostenko.  The latter was recently sentenced by a Crimean court to 4 years imprisonment over an alleged and unproven injury to a Berkut officer in Kyiv before Russia invaded and annexed Crimea.  Poklonskaya’s claim that Kostenko ‘confessed’ and gave testimony against Krasnov is almost certainly false.

None of these inaccuracies make the claims regarding the person allegedly arrested on May 1 any more credible.  The Azov Battalion immediately denied that any of its fighters had been detained in Crimea.  It added that it does not fight civilians, nor does it have any branches or units in Crimea.

This would surely have been the moment for the Prosecutor or Russian Centre for Countering Extremism to produce evidence and, at very least, name the man.  Instead only further accusations have been made and the assertion that a life sentence is envisaged.

Tragically, it seems likely that some individual is being held incommunicado and under the total control of ‘investigators’ whose task will be to extract ‘confessions’. 

The man was initially accused of an arson attack on a Simferopol mosque on June 13 and an attempted terrorist attack on the prosecutor’s office in August 2014 when a bag with explosives was found outside the building.

Then on May 19, the deputy prime minister of the de facto government Ruslan Balbek claimed that this same unnamed individual had been planning provocation around the anniversary of the Deportation of the Crimean Tatar People on May 18.  Balbek said then that the arrested man “has already confessed that he came here to organize provocation around May 18 in order to arouse a wave of disgruntlement among Crimean Tatars so that the world community received a ‘picture’ of how the Crimean Tatar people are suffering here.”  

Mr ‘Azov fighter’, according to the Crimean prosecutor and Centre for Fighting Extremism, certainly gets around.  As well as finding time to fight in eastern Ukraine, and on top of charges linked with June and August 2014, and May 2015, he now appears to be accused of desecrating the Simferopol synagogue back in February 2014, the day after Russian soldiers seized control.

Anatoly Gendin, head of the Crimean Association of Jewish Communities and Organizations has been informed that the Crimean prosecutor has appealed against the termination of the criminal investigation into the desecration of the Ner Tamid Synagogue and sent it for additional investigation. Gendin was told that a 20-year-old, arrested a month ago, is now suspected of the offence.  Although he has also not been told the man’s name, the same person is allegedly an Azov fighter and is suspected of the above-mentioned arson attack and alleged terrorist plan. Vyacheslav Likhachev, researcher and long-time monitor of xenophobia and anti-Semitism,  notes drily that the man would seem to have first desecrated the synagogue, set fire to the mosque and attempted a terrorist attack before, at the earliest in August last year, joining up with Azov and fighting, in order to then arrive back in Spring to await arrest.

The Ner Tamid Synagogue was desecrated during the early hours of Feb 28, with the words ‘death to Jews’ (an offensive word is used) daubed in red paint on the door, as well as a swastika and a wolf’s hook.   Likhachev notes that the image of the Wolfsangel was the mirror image of that used by Ukrainian nationalists such as those in the Azov battalion (who say that it represents ‘I’ and ‘N’ -  Idea of the Nation).  He points out that the anti-Semitic vandalism was actively used to discredit ‘Ukrainian nationalists’ with the term used to describe anybody asserted Ukrainian territorial integrity and therefore opposing Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea.   In fact, however, the synagogue was desecrated within 24 hours of the seizure of control by Russian soldiers, at a time when to his knowledge, there were no organized Ukrainian radical nationalists active in Simferopol.

The attack on the Chukurcha-Dzhami Mosque, when three Molotov cocktails were thrown at the building was recorded by a surveillance camera. The same assailant was probably responsible for a swastika daubed on the fence nearby, with the date 13.06.2014 and letters NS/WP (the letters for national socialism, white power).

Worth noting that there have been a number of attacks on mosques over the last year, as well as cases of desecration of Crimean Tatar monuments.  There is no evidence at all of the authorities trying to either stop them or properly investigate. 

Likhachev is surely correct in pointing out the clear parallel to the situation last year when four opponents of Russia’s annexation were arrested and charged with a ‘Right Sector terrorist plot’.  They included renowned film director Oleg Sentsov and left-wing civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko who both asserted they were tortured to force ‘confessions’.  Unlike the other two men – Gennady Afanasyev and Oleksy Chirniy – Sentsov and Kolchenko have continued to deny the charges and are now facing sentences of up to 20 years imprisonment. 

There are serious grounds for fearing that a young man is being held in custody and being tortured into ‘confessing’ to various anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim offences in order to come up with a show trial, with ‘Ukrainian nationalists’ and especially the Azov battalion as the alleged villains. 

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