10.05.2016 | Halya Coynash

8 years for integrity if you’re Crimean Tatar


   Ali Asanov giving his cap to his wife to pass on to his son 

Ali Asanov, a 33-year-old father of four, would not fit most people’s image of a political prisoner. He is, however, one of the Crimean Tatar victims of a politically motivated and legally grotesque case and could face an 8-year sentence for nothing.  It is extremely likely that he and Mustafa Degermendzhy are being held in detention because of their refusal to provide false testimony against Crimean Tatar leader Akhtem Chiygoz. 

The charges against Chiygoz, Asanov, Degermendzhy and three other Crimean Tatars are over a demonstration which took place on Ukrainian territory and under Ukrainian law.  Russia is breaching its own legislation as well as international law in persisting with prosecutions where it has no jurisdiction.  There are fears now that the ban on April 26, 2016 of the Mejlis or representative body of the Crimean Tatar people could be effectively backdated with new charges brought against the men or organizing or involvement in an ‘extremist organization.”

Asanov lives some distance from Simferopol and is the sole breadwinner for a growing family and an ailing father.   Two years ago, however, on 26 February 2014, he heeded the call from the Crimean Tatar Mejlis [representative assembly] and took part in a demonstration outside the parliament buildings in Simferopol.

There were grounds for believing that an extraordinary session of the Crimean parliament was planning to ‘vote’ to change Crimea’s status.  Around 10 thousand Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians gathered outside the parliament buildings to prevent this and were countered by a smaller crowd of pro-Russian activists.  Refat Chubarov, Head of the Mejlis, is convinced that the Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians who came out that day prevented Russia from seizing control through internal agents.  With this having failed, Russia then effectively invaded in the early hours of Feb 27, when Russian soldiers without insignia seized the parliament, airports, etc. 

Ali Asanov and the other prisoners were arrested over a year later as part of a mounting offensive against the Mejlis which had consistently opposed Russian occupation.  Akhtem Chiygoz, by then the highest-ranking Mejlis leader not exiled by Russia, was arrested first and faces the most serious charge of ‘organizing mass riots’.   The considerable video footage from the protest that day demonstrates that the contrary was true.  Chiygoz and other Mejlis leaders actively worked to prevent violence and largely succeeded.

Asanov, like most other Crimean Tatars of his age, Ivan Putilov writes, was born in exile. It was only in 1988 that his parents returned to Crimea from Uzbekistan with Ali, his four brothers and a sister. 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in the dissolution of kolkhozes or collective farms, the family received a plot of land on which they began growing things for sale.   Ali Asanov had more than enough to do on the farm, and with his own expanding family was not especially politically active.  He did, however, take part in any events organized by the Mejlis and / or linked with the national movement. 

He was arrested in the late evening of April 15, while working in the shed.  His wife Elnara was then expecting their fourth child.  Asanov has only seen his baby son Mustafa once since then.  Elnara took the baby with her to a court hearing.  In the corridor, she managed to hold Mustafa out for him to kiss, but in the second or two that they had.

According to Asanov’s lawyer Alexander Katelin, Asanov is accused to having dealt a blow to a pro-Russian demonstrator with the surname Ivkin.  This resulted in the alleged victim “feeling physical pain”.  The only video footage shows the man in question to have hurled a bottle of water at Asanov, but from a distance which would make a return blow physically impossible. 

This whole ‘case’ is legal nihilism at its worst, with there being no grounds for the changes and with only Crimean Tatars targeted.   Asanov’s detention for well over a year is especially brutal since he is the father of 4 small children.  The court has consistently accepted the line presented by the prosecution, that the charges could carry a sentence up to 8 years and that “Asanov is a citizen of another state”, i.e. Ukraine.  It is therefore claimed that he could ‘flee’, leaving his wife, small children and his elderly father who is in ill health. 

Asanov and his family have reported from the outset that he was told very clearly that he would be freed if he denounced Chiygoz.  Asanov (and Mustafa Degermendzhy) refused. 

If they do not fit our normal understanding of political prisoners or prisoners of conscience, it may be our understanding that needs to be broadened.  Certainly this trial and its victims warrant much more attention that they have thus far received. 

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