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03.01.2019 | Halya Coynash

Crimean Tatar activist who took aid to Ukrainian POWs viciously attacked & told this is his “last warning”

Risa Asanov (in the yellow sweater), Nariman Dzhelyal (on his left) and two other Crimean Tatars with the help they brought to Moscow for the 24 Ukrainian POWs
   

Risa Asanov, one of the Crimean Tatar activists who recently carried aid to Moscow for the 24 Ukrainian POWs seized by Russia, was viciously attacked on 2 January.  The two assailants waited for him to regain consciousness to say that this was his “last warning” and that he would not live through the next attack.  Asanov has played a major role in supporting political prisoners and their families since returning to Crimea from Poland in 2017, and he is certain that the attack was linked with his strong civil stand against rights violations in occupied Crimea.

He posted information about the attack on his Facebook page, explaining that he had been filming a video about the Tavrida Motorway near Belogorsk when hit from behind with what he thinks was a baton.  When he regained consciousness, he was lying close to his car, with one of the assailants telling him, with an accent indicating he was from Russia, that this was his last warning.  The other was more blunt: “Next time you’ll die”.   

He managed to drive to the district hospital where doctors diagnosed concussion and other injuries.  He reported the attack to the police, but says that he received no confirmation of his report.  What is more, he says, a person whom he first saw at the hospital appeared at the station and, on leaving, smiled at him.  He assumes that this was no mere passer-by. 

Asanov’s firm commitment to defending the rights of Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians in occupied Crimea means that it is unlikely that this will stop him, however that was clearly the intention of this attack. 

Asanov returned to Crimea in 2017 from Poland, where he was an active member of the Crimean Tatar community.  In February 2018, he explained in an interview that he had spent 20 years building his business in Germany, the Netherlands and Poland, however much of this changed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.  He initially remained in Poland, but acted against his business interests in order to block supplies from Russia to Europe.  He noted that it was “not without his assistance” that the producer ‘Russian Alcohol’ was unable to organize sale of its products to the EU.

He explains that in the Spring of 2017, while still living in Poland, he received visitors from Crimea, people involved in defending victims of repression.  He made some comment about his homeland in Crimea, and one of the guests looked at him and asked: “And so what are you doing here then?”

Asanov says that he was in a terrible state for the next day, and then told his wife to get ready.  Within 24 hours, he says, they were standing at the administrative border between the Kherson oblast in mainland Ukraine and occupied Crimea.  The Russian border guards initially didn’t want to let him in, admitting him finally as a ‘foreign national’.  Soon afterwards he sorted that out, proving that he was a Ukrainian citizen with Crimean registration.

Asked about his impressions following his return of Crimea under occupation, Asanov said:

I knew about the situation in Crimea, but did not imagine that it was so bad.  What drives me particularly crazy is the cynicism with which they persecute all dissidents.  Some members of the Mejlis [the self-governing body of the Crimean Tatar people which Russia has banned] got scared and have retreated into the shadows.  The most committed have remained, it’s they that you often see on TV.  I therefore decided that whatever happens, you need to struggle”.

Asked about his plans, Asanov said, that they are to “struggle to the end”.  He was just a simple businessman until 2014, when he was forced, by Russia’s occupation of Crimea, to become involved in civic activities.  “I am a simple man who simply wants to serve his people, and when my people are in need, I want to be there with them. After all, history is being written now in Crimea, and not some other place, and each of us is a part of these historical events.”

Aside from attending court hearings, and similar, in political cases, Asanov is working together with lawyers in holding seminars in different parts of Crimea on what to do in the case of searches and arrests.  You can see the results, he says, with people learning how to defend themselves before lawyers get there and not let the FSB plant things [‘prohibited’ books, for example, or ammunition as was the case with Ukrainian activist Volodymyr Balukh].

In general, at least back in February 2018, Asanov was positive about the level of civil society in Crimea.  He sees ever more resistance to the repressive measures deployed by Russia, and not only from Crimean Tatars.   “That is very cheering.  We are now no longer divided into ethnic groups, there is simply us and them, and it is much less important what your ethnic origin or religion is”.

This was nowhere more visible than during the recent mass efforts to help the 24 Ukrainian naval seamen whose vessels Russia attacked near Crimea on 25 November, and who were themselves seized, with three also badly injured in the attack.

By early the following day, Crimean Tatar civic leader Nariman Dzhelyal had issued an urgent appeal for money, food and clothing for the men who had nothing and whose families were all in mainland Ukraine.  The response to that appeal and to another ‘accidental’ appeal launched by Osman Pashayev, a Crimean Tatar journalist forced by the occupation regime from Crimea.  The latter, who was stunned to find that he had collected almost 325 thousand UAH, later wrote that he had been mistaken for the last five years in assuming that with rare exceptions, there was nobody remaining in occupied Crimea except the Crimean Tatars who still supported Ukraine.  Of the 857 people who had written to him to donate money for the men, very many, he writes, had Slavonic (non-Crimean Tatar) names.

Other Ukrainian citizens in Crimea, besides Crimean Tatars, are not organized and don’t have the same contacts.  “They are more frightened than many Crimean Tatars.  They don’t have the experience in their genes of fighting the regime, the history of returning from deportation and opposing those in power. For many of them Russia’s occupation is their first experience of dissidence. They probably won’t go to the courts, stream such material onto the Internet and won’t confront the repressive machine.  They won’t speak out publicly, yet there are moments when they overcome their fear and write personal messages on Facebook although they know that there is no guarantee that such a form of communication is safe”. They want to help, he added, without heroism, and they also deserve our support. 

After Russia secretly, and very illegally, transferred the 24 naval seamen, who are all prisoners of war, to Moscow, Asanov joined Dzhelyal and other Crimean Tatar activists in transporting the huge load of clothes, food and essential items, as well as money, collected for their fellow Ukrainians whom Russia is still now holding prisoner.

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