Russia stages mystery arrest for new propaganda about ‘Crimean Tatar battalion’
Russian state-owned media reported on 23 January that the FSB had carried out searches in Crimea “of members of a Ukrainian nationalist battalion” and, then later, that a member of the Crimean Tatar Çelebicihan Battalion’ had been arrested. Probably the only element of truth was that an armed search was carried out of the elderly parents of a Crimean Tatar woman active from mainland Ukraine in the Asker volunteer battalion (or Noman Çelebicihan Battalion). And, unfortunately, that a Crimean Tatar has been arrested.
The FSB’s claims about the man are not rendered more convincing by the evident measures taken in both that RIA Novosti report, and the video shown by the Kremlin-loyal KrymInform to conceal the person’s face. This may be, it has been suggested, because the video footage of his supposed arrest was from a year ago. Citing the FSB’s press service, RIA Novosti reported that a member of the Battalion had been detained “as the result of a special operation on Wednesday”. The FSB stated that they had “identified and detained” a Crimean, born in 1994, whom they suspect of involvement in what they inaccurately call “an illegal armed formation”. No name was given.
It is asserted that this person in 2016 joined the Battalion and underwent special training, including in the use of firearms. The report then provides a link to supposed ‘Cases where terrorist acts were averted in Russia during 2018’.
The FSB claim that this person was supposed to guard Lenur Islyamov, the head of the Battalion and carry out his orders. The man is facing criminal charges “for taking part in an illegal armed formation in a foreign country for purposes which are against the Russian Federation’s interests”.
Islyamov, however, says that he does not know the person shown on the Russian videos, and that there are no members of the Battalion in Crimea. All are deployed on the administrative border with Crimea, he adds, and nobody is missing.
Later that day, the Kievsky District Court in Simferopol reported that a person identified only as E. O. Kadyrov had been remanded in custody until 23 March 2019. The charge is under Article 208 paragraph 2 of Russia’s criminal code (involvement in an illegal armed formation). This carries a sentence of up to 15 years’ imprisonment. Journalist Anton Naumlyuk reports that the man’s first name is Edem.
The Asker Battalion was formed soon after the beginning of the Crimean Blockade in 2015, initiated by exiled Crimean Tatar leaders Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov with specific human rights demands. Despite its persistent demonization by Russia, the Battalion remains a relatively small formation whose role at present is merely to back the Ukrainian border guards in areas near the administrative border with occupied Crimea. Islyamov, has long indicated that this is a Crimean formation, not only Crimean Tatar. While they would be willing to serve in the Armed Forces in the area of conflict in Donbas, the steps needed to formalize such service have yet to be taken.
While it is certainly opposed to Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, there is nothing at all to suggest that its actions have gone beyond actively promoting first a goods blockade, and then an energy blockade.
This does not stop Russia from periodically detaining people, with the most shocking case being the arrest on 12 December of 57-year-old Edem Bekirov, an amputee who recently suffered a major heart attack and also has diabetes. Bekirov had been trying to visit his elderly mother in Crimea but was seized by the FSB border guards, almost certainly because his wife is a member of the Mejlis, or representative assembly, of the Crimean Tatar people. Russian media even showed Bekirov having difficulty walking with a crutch and yet still posted headlines claiming that he was a member of a military formation who’d been seized with 11 kilograms of explosives. As his lawyer explained to the court, trying to lift a fraction of that weight would put Bekirov’s life in danger. Bekirov’s medical records, confirming that he should not be imprisoned, were ignored, as were calls for his release from the EU and many countries.
The searches on Wednesday morning were probably aimed solely at creating the impression of a ‘special operation’ against the supposed ‘threat’ posed by the Asker Battalion. Even had they got the right person in the case of Bekir Abultarov, there would have been no sense in searching the home of his parents. Abultarov is living in mainland Ukraine, and, according to Islyamov, has never had any connection with the Asker Battalion.
Evelina Arifova is indeed the deputy commander of the Asker Battalion, however she left Crimea after Russia’s invasion and says that she has no contact with her parents who would not think of leaving their homeland. They are not young, and were clearly traumatized by the armed men in camouflage gear who burst into their home on Wednesday morning.
Zair Smedlya, head of the Central Election Commission of the Crimean Tatar Qurultay, calls this just the latest witch hunt. After persecuting people they call Mejlis ‘extremists’, or on charges of involvement in the peaceful Hizb ut-Tahrir movement, etc., they have now thought up another witch hunt, with this also needing new victims – first disabled and gravely ill Edem Bekirov, now Edem Kadyrov, whose face they need to hide. That list is, unfortunately, likely to grow.