Crimean Tatar political prisoners punished for refusing to take part in Russia’s ’forever Putin referendum’
Several Crimean Tatar prisoners and their cellmates have been threatened and punished because they refused to take part in the pseudo ‘referendum’ on amendments to Russia’s Constitution. The amendments are aimed both at enabling Vladimir Putin to be President for another 10 years and, theoretically, at preventing moves to return Crimea which Russia is illegally occupying. Nobody is in any doubt as to ‘the result’, which can be easily rigged. The only difficulty lies in obtaining frequency broadly commensurate with the fiddled results. Over recent days there have been the familiar reports of public sector and educational workers, and others, being forced to vote on threat of dismissal, with others also bribed or threatened “with difficulties” if they don’t take part.
It is likely that all institutions, including remand prisons [SIZO] and psychiatric hospitals, have been given quotas they must fulfil. This is, of course, illegal in all cases, however such coercion in the case of Russia’s ever-mounting number of Crimean Tatar political prisoners seems particularly cynical. These Ukrainians, imprisoned in SIZO, or undergoing a formal ‘psychiatric assessment’ are facing huge sentences for their civic activism; their views; and, of course, because Russia is occupying their homeland.
Lawyer Nazim Sheikhambet visited the Simferopol SIZO on 30 June, and spoke with Shaban Umerov, one of the 24 Crimean Tatar civic activists and journalists arrested on 27 March 2019 in one of Russia’s most flagrantly repressive and international condemned operations to date.
Umerov has given his lawyer a formal account of the pressure he has been subjected to for taking a principled stand. In the morning of 27 June, he and three other prisoners were taken to vote. He refused to take part and was sent back to the cell. At first the prison staff, and particularly the deputy head of the SIZO Stanislav Sukhoveyev tried to persuade him to change his mind, then they turned to threats, and not only against Umerov himself. Sukhoveyev said that if Umerov did not agree ‘to vote’, his cellmates would also suffer with all being subjected to even more searches and other restrictions. One, for example, was that during the summer period, when the lack of air in the cell is intolerable, they would refuse to open the meal flap which is the only way of getting any air through the cell. This was clearly aimed at setting his cellmates against him. Umerov held firm, but the pressure was enormous and continued for two days. There have already been two searches, and the meal flap is not being opened, with this causing health problems for many of the prisoners, including Umerov. Sheikhmambet is lodging a complaint with the prosecutor, but these seldom achieve much.
Fellow political prisoner Tofik Abdulgaziev was also placed under intense pressure to change his mind and ‘vote’, although the SIZO staff promised a better cell in exchange for taking part, rather than threatening reprisals.
Seytumer Seytumerov is currently in a psychiatric clinic for the so-called ‘assessment’ and there it was the doctors who tried to push him into taking part in the so-called referendum. They demanded that he write a statement regarding his refusal, but then clearly got worried when he wrote that he is a political prisoner, a Crimean Tatar and citizen of Ukraine. He did not wish to take part in any vote, he said, and assuredly not on amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation. Seytumerov flatly refused to take out the truthful and internationally recognized words about his being a political prisoner.
Putin announced the planned constitutional amendments in January 2020. Although the main attention in the West was to this being an obvious mechanism to ensure that he could stay in power for yet another decade, the move was then clearly, and now openly admitted as being about being able to cite the Constitution as excuse for not returning Crimea to Ukraine. The constitutional amendments are certainly a hostile act against Ukraine and Europe, with the amendments also containing the possibility of not complying with European Court of Human Rights judgements. The argument that an illegal land-grab can be made legal via constitutional amendments is pure nonsense, of course, and that would be true even if this so-called ‘referendum’ were not as farcical as that which the Kremlin used to try to justify its annexation of Crimea.
Any of Russia’s electoral stunts are totally illegal in occupied Crimea, and both Kyiv, and the Mejlis, or self-governing body, of the Crimean Tatar people have registered formal protests. For the many despairing Russians who want to see their country a democracy, there is a dilemma with this pseudo referendum. They argue that while their vote can charge nothing, their refusal to participate will not even be registered. It is an argument, however it is not only the treatment of Ukrainian political prisoners that demonstrate how evidently rigged this event is. In the Moscow district of Ramenki, for example, ten times more people are reported to have voted from home than were registered to vote. The list of such fabrications can be continued, though it will certainly not be noticed by the far-right European politicians who are on all-expenses paid ‘observer’ trips to Russia. Some are very likely the same individuals, and certainly from the same parties as those who rubberstamped Russia’s pseudo referendum in Crimea in March 2014.
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