Russia set to begin its latest Crimean trial on ethnic and religious grounds
Safiye Kuku spent her 7th birthday outside a Crimean court on December 4 hoping in vain to see her father, human rights activist Emir-Usein Kuku. At this last detention hearing before Kuku and five other men are taken to Russia for ‘trial’, the men’s wives and mothers were allowed to be present, but not the children. The court hearing, Safiye’s brother Bekir explained, would supposedly ‘traumatize’ them. “They should have thought about that before breaking into our homes”, Bekir, who seems much older than his 10 years, says bitterly.
As, unfortunately, expected, all arguments against the men’s detention were rejected, with this extended for a six-month period. The men are now going to be moved to Rostov on the Don, in Russia, where the preliminary hearing is scheduled for December 11. Russia, while using words like ‘trauma’, is thus illegally taking children’s fathers away to Russia, from where they will likely be sent to prisons thousands of kilometres from their homes. Small wonder that Bekir spoke of their ‘total hypocrisy’.
Four Ukrainian Muslims: Muslim Aliev; Enver Bekirov; Emir-Usein Kuku and Vadim Siruk were arrested on February 11, 2016, after armed and masked men burst into homes where small children were asleep, using totally gratuitous force. Two much younger men: Refat Alimov, Bekirov’s nephewand Arsen Dzhepparov were arrested in the same ‘case’ on April 18 that year. All but Siruk are Crimean Tatar and it seems likely that Siruk was arrested, both as a way of claiming that Crimean Tatars are not being targeted and as a warning to other converts to Islam what this could lead to while Crimea remains under Russian occupation.
The men are charged with ‘involvement’ in Hizb ut-Tahrir, a peaceful pan-Islamist organization which is legal in Ukraine and most countries, but which Russia’s Supreme Court has labelled ‘terrorist’. Although it never provided any grounds for its decision, the ruling has been used since 2003 to sentence Russian Muslims to huge terms of imprisonment, even life, merely for unproven ‘involvement’ in an organization not known to have committed any acts of terrorism anywhere in the world. All are recognized as political prisoners by the renowned Memorial Human Rights Centre.
This is the second such prosecution in Crimea since Russia’s invasion and annexation, with four Crimean Tatars already imprisoned in Russia on similarly flawed charges. The ‘evidence’ was so unconvincing that even judges at the North Caucuses Military Court in Rostov, while lacking the courage to acquit the men, passed the minimum sentences in three cases, and much less than demanded in the fourth, against Ruslan Zeytullaev.
The FSB has its set template for ‘Hizb ut-Tahrir’ prosecutions, with each requiring an ‘organizer’. The ‘trial’ of Zeytullaev was therefore repeated until the original 7-year sentence was increased to 15 years.
In the so-called Yalta case, Muslim Aliev has been designated ‘organizer’ and faces a sentence of from 15 to 20 years under Article 205.5 § 1 of Russia’s criminal code (organizing a group declared terrorist), while the other men are accused of ‘involvement’ (Article 205.5 § 2) with this carrying sentences from 10 to 20 years.
The use of ‘terrorism’ charges is cynical yet effective, with few willing to probe the surface and understand that men are being tried not for anything they have done, or even planned to do, but for their views, with the latter only alleged. The ‘court’ will accept just about anything as ‘proof’ of involvement, from a word commonly used in Crimean Tatar which the FSB ‘expert’ claims is specific to members of Hizb ut-Tahrir to ‘secret witnesses’.
In January 2017, the prosecution suddenly laid new charges against all six men of “attempting violent seizure of power in Russia’ with this carrying a near-guaranteed 8-year increase in sentence (from 20 years to life).
As well as working at two or more jobs for many years to pay for expensive medical treatment for one of his daughters, Aliev was also the informal leader of a local Muslim community. The latter had come into conflict with the Muftiat on a number of occasions, and his family is convinced that this is the reason that he was arrested on February 11, 2016.
The case of Emir-Usein Kuku is even more glaring. Back in 2014, he had reacted to the abductions and disappearances of young Crimean Tatars and other rights violations under Russian occupation by joining the Crimean Contact Group on Human Rights. There was a clear attempt to abduct him on April 20, 2015, with this turning into an FSB ‘search’ only after people came to Kuku’s assistance, and his assailants were surrounded. Neither then, nor in charges over Facebook entries in December 2016, was there any mention of a link with Hizb ut-Tahrir.
There is every reason to believe that his arrest and the charges against him are directly linked with his human rights activities.
As mentioned, Siruk was probably targeted as an ethnic Ukrainian and convert to Islam. During the hearing on Monday, he rejected the charges, calling them persecution on ethnic and religious grounds.
With respect to the two youngest men, there is reason to believe that the FSB hoped that they would ‘break’ and give false testimony against the others. It seems that Dzhepparov and his wife Zarina had been aware for some time of the danger hanging over him.
Three FSB officers turned up at Dzhepparov’s work around two weeks before his arrest. One of the three was Alexander Kompaneitsev, a former SBU [Ukrainian security service] turncoat who was involved both in the aborted attempt to abduct Kuku, and then in his and the other men’s arrests on February 11, 2016, and in threats to a friend of Kuku what he should expect if he didn’t collaborate with the FSB.
Kompaneitsev openly warned Dzhepparov that if he didn’t testify against the first four men arrested, that he would be fired. A week later, there was an even more ominous incident where the car Dzhepparov was driving was forced off the road near a traffic police checkpoint, and then subjected to a search by FSB men, one of them with a machine gun. Dzhepparov was asked if he’d “thought about” what was demanded of him. He repeated his refusal to collaborate and the traffic police officer, who had already erased the CCTV footage showing what had happened, then drew up the required protocol, stating that Dzhepparov was drunk with this resulting in a fine and loss of his licence.
Dzhepparov rejected the pressure before his arrest, saying that there could be no questioning of collaborating. Zarina recalls how he told her: “They also have children, families. How would I later explain what conscience and honour are to my daughter if I did something like that?”