Crimean Tatar journalist Remzi Bekirov faces 20-year sentence for reporting repression
On 27 March 2019, Russia’s FSB carried out its most open attack to date against Crimean Tatar civic activists and journalists, most from the civic initiative Crimean Solidarity. A year later, 25 men are facing sentences of 10-20 years or more on fabricated ‘terrorism’ charges that have been widely recognized as aimed at crushing the Crimean Tatar human rights movement and forcing activists into silence or exile.
Remzi Bekirov is a historian and tour guide by profession, but responded to mounting persecution under Russian occupation by becoming one of the first Crimean Solidarity civic journalists, reporting on armed searches, arrests and politically motivated trials. It was he who streamed information about the detention in early March of Archbishop Klyment and who helped make sure that the mounting repression against Crimean Tatars did not go unnoticed. Shortly before his arrest, he had become an accredited correspondent for the independent Russian Internet publication Grani.ru.
The Crimean Solidarity initiative began in 2016 in response to the growing number of Crimean Tatar political prisoners and children whose fathers had been taken from them. The FSB began trying to crush it within a matter of months, although it initially used minor administrative prosecutions.
On 21 February 2017, for example, Bekirov and some other Crimean Solidarity activists were jailed for five days simply for standing and streaming information onto the Internet about the armed search of the home of Marlen Mustafaev.
Then on 30 March 2017, Bekirov was called into the so-called Centre for countering extremism, purportedly to collect a tablet which had been taken from him.
In the centre, he was detained and presented with a new administrative charge - ‘circulating extremist material’ under Article 20.29 of Russia’s Code of Administrative Offences. The supposed extremist content was a reposted video clip about the ‘Prymorsky Partisans’, a vigilante group that targeted police officers whom they accused of brutality and corruption. The repost itself was from 2009, i.e. seven years earlier and five years before Russia’s annexation of Crimea. It was also disturbing that the report in question had been on a VKontakte social media page which Bekirov had deleted earlier that year. Despite the absurdity of these charges, Bekirov was jailed for a further 3 days.
Bekirov himself called the measures against him a message to all Crimean Tatars “that they should be frightened, not come out, not be active”. Neither he, nor the other activists, let themselves be intimidated, and he continued to provide coverage of repression and to actively help the families of political prisoners.
Unconcealed attack on civic activists
Although the armed searches and arrests on 27 March 2019 were used for propaganda purposes in the Russian and Russian-controlled media, the obvious targeting of civic activists and journalists was widely condemned by the international community, with Human Rights Watch stating that attempts to portray politically active Crimean Tatars as terrorists are aimed at silencing them, and Freedom House and Civil Rights Defenders equally clear that the arrests were to terrorize Crimean Tatars, not about fighting ‘terrorism’.
On 21 May 2019, the renowned Memorial Human Rights Centre declared the first 24 men arrested political prisoners and accused Russia of using fabricated charges carrying huge sentences to try to crush the Crimean Solidarity movement in occupied Crimea and all Crimean Tatar human rights activists.
On 18 July 2019, the European Parliament adopted a resolution in which it named all of the 25 Crimean Tatar activists among political prisoners whom it called upon Russia to release.
Horrific sentences for no crime
Not one of the men is charged with a recognizable crime or even a plan to commit a crime. Instead they are accused of ‘involvement’ in the peaceful Hizb ut-Tahrir party which is legal in Ukraine and which only one country in the world - Russia - has labelled ‘terrorist’, and without providing any real explanation. Remzi Bekirov and one other civic journalist, Ruslan Suleymanov, as well as three civic activists (Farkhod Bakharov; Riza Izetov and Shaban Umerov) are charged with ‘organizing a Hizb ut-Tahrir cell’ [Article 205.5 § 1 of Russia’s criminal code], carrying a sentence of up to life imprisonment. The others are accused of ‘involvement’ in such a group [ Article 205.5 § 2 – 10-20 years.
In March 2020, all 25 men were also charged, under Article 278, with “planning a violent seizure of power and change in Russia’s constitutional order”. It is extraordinary that a country which sent in armed soldiers without insignia and paramilitaries to seize another country’s territory should now be charging Ukrainians with plans for just such a seizure. Especially given that not one of the searches uncovered any weapons or ammunition.
It is not only the lack of any evidence of criminal behaviour in these prosecutions that is so disturbing. These ‘trials’ do not even require evidence of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, since Russia uses ‘experts’ who will always be prepared to provide the ‘assessment’ required, and ‘secret witnesses’ who can have been tortured or paid into testifying to having heard the men talk about Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Bekirov and two other men were not at home when the FSB came on 27 March, and were savagely beaten when seized in a café late that evening. All the men have been treated very badly, with the conditions they are held in akin to torture.
Bekirov turned 35 in Russian imprisonment on 20 February 2020. He and his wife Khalide have three children – two boys (Mukhammed, born in 2009) and Salakhuddin (b. 2012) and a small daughter, Safiye, born in June 2014.