Terror on a Conveyor Belt in Russian-occupied Crimea
14 Crimean Muslims are in custody in Russian-occupied Crimea and are facing either life or 10-year sentences for unproven involvement in an organization which is legal in Ukraine, but which Russia has arbitrarily decided is ‘terrorist’. In many cases those arrested are rights activists or people active in their communities, and the prosecutions seem clearly intended as a form of intimidation. It is also significant that both the indictment and the prosecution during court hearings talk of the defendants being unhappy with Russia’s annexation of Crimea, although this in theory has nothing to do with the charges.
The authoritative Memorial Human Rights Centre has recognized the first four men, now on trial - Ruslan Zeitullayev, Nuri Primov; Rustem Vaitov and Ferat Saifullayev - as political prisoners. This is the first time that Memorial HRC has issued a statement regarding Crimean Muslims on trial and it is appropriately hard-hitting:
“It is important here that Crimea, from our point of view, is territory which Russia has occupied. In accordance with international humanitarian law, Russia is limited in its legislative and administrative powers. It does not have the right to totally revoke criminal legislation in force at the beginning of the occupation and replace it with its own. Under Ukrainian legislation Hizb ut-Tahrir is entirely legal.
We would note that this criminal prosecution is the first of three initiated against Crimean Tatars on terrorist charges, and it is part of the campaign of repression unleashed in the occupied peninsula. We demand the release of Zeitullayev; Saifullayev; Vaitov and Primov.”
This organization is legal in Ukraine and in all western countries (except Germany where there was an administrative ban on forming a German branch, not a criminal ban).
Russia’s Supreme Court declared it ‘terrorist’ in a 2003 judgement which was long kept secret, preventing the organization itself and rights NGOs from appealing against it.
Russia has never provided any evidence to back the Supreme Court decision, and this, Memorial points out, is one of the reason why it has repeatedly condemned the judgement and considers all those convicted of such charges to be political prisoners. There is absolutely no evidence, anywhere in the world, of any terrorist activities carried out or even advocated by Hizb ut-Tahrir. A Memorial expert, Vitaly Ponomaryov believes that Russia may have declared the organization terrorist to make it easier to extradite people to Uzbekistan where they almost certainly faced religious persecution and torture.
‘Involvement in a terrorist organization’
There is no evidence that any of the men are now members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. All of them are charged with nothing more than supposed affiliation to the movement and reading and discussing Islamist literature. In the trial now taking place of the first four men, the prosecution is illegally going back to pre-annexation Crimea. This would be illegitimate under any circumstances, but is especially so given that Hizb ut-Tahrir has always been legal in Ukraine.
Despite the lack of any proof of anything criminal at all, let alone ‘terrorist’, Ruslan Zeitullayev is charged with ‘organizing’ a terrorist organization (Article 205.1 § 1 of the Russian criminal code) and is facing a life sentence, while Nuri Primov, Rustem Vaitov and Ferat Saifullayev are accused of taking part in it (Article 205.1 § 2), with this carrying at least 10 years.
These prosecutions are purpose-made for easy convictions. By calling the organization itself terrorist, you don’t need to demonstrate that an individual suspect actually committed or planned to commit any crime. Nor do you need to prove that the organization is ‘terrorist’ since the Supreme Court once said it was.
The trial now underway in Rostov has demonstrated what kind of ‘evidence’ will be accepted by a Russian court. With even the supposed prosecution witnesses mostly denying evidence attributed to them, the prosecutor pulled out a ‘secret witness’. The infringements in procedure were surreal, with the person answering questions from another room, with his voice quite illegally altered. Even with the long delays in responding, when he was clearly consulting with somebody, his testimony lacked any credibility at all. He could purportedly recall all conversations about Hizb ut-Tahrir, while ‘not remembering’ where or when these had taken place.
The presiding judge in the same Rostov military court used to convict Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko has consistently rejected all legitimate objections from the defence.
Those who instigate such prosecutions are tragically guaranteed ‘easy’ convictions and long sentences, for which they themselves get promoted or bonuses.
Terrorization, not justice
Each lot of arrests has been accompanied by mass armed searches, during which masked men with machine guns have burst into Crimean Tatar homes, terrifying children and using totally unwarranted force.
The FSB are also known to have tried to question and terrorize the small children of men imprisoned, such as the 9-year-old son of human rights activist Emir-Huseyn Kuku.
Lawyer Emil Kurbedinov, who is representing Zeitullayev (after being illegally prevented from defending all four men now on trial), believes that the arrests are a form of repression against independent Muslims who have their own point of view on the situation in Crimea. They are a warning to the Slavonic population to not convert to Islam – as did Vadim Siruk and Nuri Primov because you could end up a victim of the repressive system. These prosecutions are undoubtedly mainly targeting Crimean Tatars. With those arrested being presented by the de facto prosecutor Natalya Poklonskaya and pro-Kremlin media as ‘terrorist’, an image is being established of Crimean Tatars as ‘the enemy’.
Finally, and most chillingly, there is an ‘educational aim’ – Russia wants to show people in Crimea who is now boss.
Imprisoned on so-called Hizb ut-Tahrir charges
April 2016 Arsen Dzhepparov and Refat Alimov
Photos: Armed searches on Feb 11; Bekir Kuku & his sister