Russia imprisons Crimean Tatar philanthropist on an openly absurd pretext
The Russian FSB would seem to have found another pastime in occupied Crimea. When not terrorizing the children of political prisoners or torturing out confessions to crimes that never happened, they check sell-by dates. A few sweets and biscuits purportedly found beyond this date are, for the moment, the only pretext given for the arrest on 26 April and ongoing imprisonment of Resul Veliliaev, a highly-respected Crimean Tatar businessman and philanthropist, together with the Director of his firm, Ali Bariev. Both men have been held ever since in the FSB’s Lefortovo Prison in Moscow, despite the only charge laid being under Article 238 § 2.a of Russia’s criminal code (‘transporting, storing and selling goods not meeting safety standards’). The charges are denied by both men and would not necessarily carry a term of imprisonment even if they were convicted.
The initial two-month detention was recently extended for a further three months, until 25 September, with the ‘investigator’ claiming that the time was needed for further ‘expert assessments’ and to question ‘witnesses’.
Lefortovo is not a place where people are held on charges of selling stale biscuits,
Crimean Tatar Mejlis Head Refat Chubarov has suggested that the measures may be because Veliliaev refused to help ensure ‘turnout’ to the Russian presidential elections which were illegally held in occupied Crimea on 18 March this year. While it was never in question that Vladimir Putin would get his fourth presidential term, there was enormous pressure to make it look real by getting a large turnout.
Chubarov explains that the FSB visited all Crimean Tatar businessmen on the eve of these elections and demanded that they get their employees to turn up at polling stations. Since Veliliaev’s KrymOpt chain of stores employs over a thousand people, they tried to force them to organize their employees’ attendance. Veliliaev and, seemingly, Bariev refused, saying it was up to their staff whether they voted or not.
This would therefore be an act of reprisal against Veliliaev over his stand, and a direct warning to others of what they could expect. The same applies if, as has been suggested, this is an attempt to seize control of the businesses Veliliaev has created: КРЫМОПТ [KrymOpt), the leading food wholesaler in Crimea and the Guzel retail network. The actions taken by the FSB are brazenly excessive, and yet the courts in Moscow are obediently continuing to reject the defence’s appeal and clear arguments against holding the men in custody.
There is certainly every reason to believe that it is specifically Veliliaev and his family who are the target of this latest FSB ‘operation’. Why else would there have been searches on 26 April by huge contingents of FSB and OMON riot police not just of the work site, but also of the homes of Bariev, Resul Veliliaev himself, one of his brothers and his sister, as well as of his two adult sons?
Veliliaev has played a vital role for many years in supporting Crimean Tatar scholars, cultural and religious life. Although earlier involvement in politics ended in 2014, Veliliaev has continued major philanthropic work, including through the Foundation he created in 2003, named after the Crimean Tatar poet Bekir Çoban-zade. This provides grants for talented children, funding for hospitals, schools and other institutions, and supports Crimean Tatar historical, literature and linguistic research,
He built the Juma-Jami Mosque in his native Karasubazar (Belogorsk), and also generously contributed to work on the St. Mykola Orthodox Cathedral. Speaking after the Mosque was completed, Veliliaev said he couldn’t now imagine what he could do now, but said he believed there would be other, even more serious, tasks.
This is not the first trouble the family have faced since Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In April 2015, Resul and his brother Remzi Veliliaev were subjected to searches, with Remzi taken away for interrogation. That occasion was apparently linked with the so-called ’26 February case”, where Russia imprisoned Crimean Tatar leader Akhtem Chiygoz, as well as Ali Asanov and Mustafa Degemendzhy on legally insane charges pertaining to a pre-annexation demonstration over which Russia can have no jurisdiction.
Veliliaev’s arrest has been a blow to all those who know him in his native city, including the huge number of people whom his businesses provide work for. It is also widely felt to be the latest attack on Crimean Tatars. It comes as Russia has allowed the effective destruction of the Khan’s Palace in Bakhchysarai, a place of huge cultural and historical significance for Crimean Tatars, and all of Ukraine. It also coincided with the forced closure in Bakhchysarai of the renowned Salachik Cultural and Ethnographic Café. The café has faced constant searches and more under Russian occupation, and in October 2017, its owner Marlen (Suleyman) Asanov was arrested, together with five other Crimean Muslims. At least three of them have been active in the Crimea Solidarity initiative, formed to help political prisoners and their families, and Asanov has long been known for his generosity in helping others in need. It was for this that he was named Ukraine’s Volunteer of the Year for 2017.