Russia’s most anonymous machine for persecuting Crimean Tatars claims another victim
Russia’s FSB is clearly hoping to convince people, at least in occupied Crimea and Russia, that there is a dangerous fifth column of Crimean Tatars in Crimea “working against Russia’s interests”, but being thwarted in this by the vigilant FSB. This would explain both the ever-mounting number of men seized on charges of involvement in the Noman Çelebicihan (or Asker) Battalion, which, despite the name and Russia’s assertion, is not an armed formation and the fact that in the majority of cases virtually nothing is known about the men seized.
It is easy to see why the FSB prefer anonymous victims. 27-year-old Medzhit Ablyamitov, the latest Crimean Tatar to be accused of involvement, while in mainland Ukraine, in the Noman Çelebicihan Battalion, is a hard-working young man who is clearly concentrated on giving maximum support and help to his mother who has stage IV (metastatic) cancer. Asiye Ablyamitova needs all her strength for a gruelling course of chemotherapy, but is obviously distraught and can only think about her son, arrested on 19 August and remanded in custody the following day by the Russian-controlled Kievsky District Court in Simferopol.
The Russian reports, and the ‘court’, cited the FSB, whose initial report did not mention Ablyamitov’s name. He is said to be accused of the supposed crime envisaged by Article 208 § 2 of Russia’s criminal code (taking part in the activities on Ukrainian territory of an armed formation, not envisaged by the legislation of that country and acting for purposes which are against the interests of the Russian Federation”.
Ablyamitov is claimed to have been trained how to use firearms, and that his duties involved guarding the Battalion, helping the Ukrainian Border Guard in joint patrolling of the buffer zone (around the administrative border between mainland Ukraine and Crimea) and checking individuals and vehicles at the checkpoints. It is further asserted that, after returning to Crimea, Ablyamitov maintained contact with members of the Battalion and “did not report his voluntary cessation of participation in an illegal armed formation”. The reports say that he faces a sentence of up to 15 years.
The founder of the Battalion, Lenur Islyamov, has said that he does not know Ablyamitov and that there was never such a person in the Battalion. Even if this were not the case, Russia has no right to prosecute or imprison somebody for activities on Ukrainian territory. The claim that the Battalion is illegal in Ukraine is false. It has not been formally registered, and has not been given official status, but it is not at all illegal.
If you remove misleading terms like ‘illegal armed formation’, the description of the impugned activities is actually close to the activities of the battalion which the Russian occupiers certainly did not like, but which were not illegal.
The Noman Çelebicihan Battalion was (rather controversially) formed on 1 January 2016 from people who had taken part in the essentially peaceful civic blockade of Crimea from 20 September 2015. The blockade, first of goods, then of electricity, was initiated by Crimean Tatar leaders with human rights objectives (an end to political persecution, etc.). 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.
In occupied Crimea and Russia, there are a large number of former mercenaries and members of the so-called ‘private military companies’ which are genuinely illegal under Russian legislation. Such fighters have indeed taken up arms and killed people in occupied Donbas, in Syria and other countries where their engagement closely follows Russian foreign policy.
Not one of these people has been accused of taking part in a genuinely illegal armed formation, It is thus clear that the charges against Ablyamitov and several other Crimean Tatars are politically motivated, depending not on whether the formation in question is illegal, but on whether it is fighting what the Kremlin sees as its geopolitical interests, or (legally) opposing them.
These cases are frightening swift, with the men usually having state-appointed lawyers who are most often there to sign papers and encourage the men arrested to not dispute the charges in the hope of getting a shorter sentence.
55-year-old Nariman Mezhmedinov was arrested on identical charges at the beginning of February 2020, Although only reported on 22 July, he was sentenced on 20 June, by a ‘judge’ from the Chornomorsky District Court to eight years’ imprisonment. Since the ‘trial’ was behind closed doors, and Mezhmedinov’s family have not wanted to talk with Crimean Solidarity activists, it seems likely that Mezhmedimenov was either tortured into agreeing to ‘confess’, or threatened with an even longer sentence if he refused.
Prior to Mezhmedinov’s ‘trial’, Russia has already sentenced at least three Crimean Tatars on these charges and had brought a number of similar charges against other Crimean Tatars in absentia.
On 28 August 2019, the Russian-controlled Kirov District Court sentenced 22-year-old Dilyaver Gafarov to 10 years in a maximum security prison on the same unproven charge of involvement in a legal formation. The de facto prosecutor claimed that Gafarov was part of a group of reconnaissance agents and that he was Islyamov’s personal guard. Gafarov denied any such involvement in the Battalion (details here).
On 25 January 2019, Fevzi Sahandzhy was sentenced to 10.5 years despite the young man’s allegations of torture and the same fatally flawed charges. On 14 May 2019, a panel of ‘judges’, led by Oleg Lebed, from the Russian-controlled Crimean High Court confirmed the sentence, The Russian and Russian-controlled media reported Sahandzhy’s arrest (or at least the arrest of a 24-year-old Crimean Tatar) in March 2018. He asserts that he was seized by FSB officers in October 2017 and that they had forced him, under torture, to sign various documents. The flawed nature of this prosecution is made all the more disturbing by the fact that there are no photographs of Sahandzhy himself.
Then on 13 June 2019, the same Kirov District Court sentenced Edem Kadyrov to four years’ imprisonment and a further year of restricted liberty, also for supposed involvement in the Battalion. Virtually nothing is known about Kadyrov, except that he is 25 and that Russia claims that he too was Islyamov’s personal guard, which Islamov denies.