Crimea is not a closed subject, Putin. It’s an open wound.
Left : all 14 facing fictitious terrorism charges, right: the children of human rights activist Emir-Useyn Kuku, waiting in hope to see their imprisoned father
Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the “question of Crimea closed” and not up for discussion. There is certainly nothing to discuss as such, but this is not an issue of yesterday’s headlines, today’s realpolitik. Disappearances, arrests, politically motivated trials and terrorization of Crimean Tatars and all dissident voices are taking place in Ukraine’s sovereign territory which Russia invaded and annexed. Business as usual makes our commitment to democratic values as empty as the threats Putin heard and ignored back in February 2014.
While Russia’s annexation of Crimea was a blitzkrieg affair, the repression has been carried out in stages. Each was met by the lack of anything more than words of deep concern, while a recent Council of Europe report was simply craven in its failure to name and condemn even those trials which contradict the fundamental principles of law. The passiveness has been treated each time as a carte blanche to go further.
Ervin Ibragimov, a prominent member of the World Congress of Crimean Tatars. was seized from near his home on May 24, with the de facto authorities initially refusing to even accept the report of his abduction. An investigation was only initiated after hundreds of Crimean Tatars ignored the likely FSB cameras and reprisals to stand outside the Interior Ministry demanding an investigation. Such ‘investigations’ since annexation have never found one of the men, most very young Crimean Tatars who disappeared without trace.
Ibragimov was due to be travelling the following morning to Sudak for the court hearing on charges against Crimean Tatars detained for a traditional peaceful action in memory of the victims of the 1944 Deportation. He was supposed to be going with Ilmi Umerov, one of the Deputy Heads of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis. This representative assembly of the main indigenous people of Crimea has, since April 2016, been banned as ‘extremist’. Umerov himself is facing criminal charges for supposed ‘public calls to action encroaching upon Russia’s territorial integrity’. This in human language means he expressed his conviction that Crimea should be returned to Ukraine. For this he could face a 5-year prison sentence.
Summonses and attempted interrogation of Umerov’s children are continuing, however Russia has steered clear so far of taking Umerov into custody. It possibly believes that the indefinite detention of TWO Crimean Tatar Mejlis leaders could arouse more than desultory protest from the West.
This may be overestimating the Council of Europe and western countries given the pitiful reaction to the arrest on legal nonsensical charges over which Russia has no jurisdiction and ongoing detention of Crimean Tatar leader Akhtem Chiygoz, together with two other Crimean Tatars Ali Asanov and Mustafa Degermendzhy.
There was little or no response to the surreal trial and imprisonment of Oleksandr Kostenko, a Maidan activist over alleged events during Euromaidan in Kyiv. A second such trial is now underway, with the Maidan activist Andriy Kolomiyets facing a sentence of 20 years.
The first trial begins on June 1 of four Crimean Muslims - Nuri Primov; Ferat Saifullayev; Rustem Vaitov; and Ruslan Zeitullayev arrested in early 2015 on ‘terrorism’ charges. These are based solely on alleged involvement in the organization Hizb ut-Tahrir which is legal in Ukraine and most countries, but which Russia has chosen, without proper explanation, to ban as ‘terrorist’. The men face 15-year sentences though there was no ‘terrorism’ and even their involvement in the organization is unproven.
The trial in Russia and monstrous sentences on ‘terrorist plot’ charges of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and three other opponents of Russian occupation were at least in the headlines. These other fictitious ‘terrorism’ trials scarcely get a mention, although the number of such arrests is rapidly increasing. If in 2015 there were ‘only’ four men facing such charges, there are now 14, and this figure seems sure to rise. Four men - Emir-Huseyn Kuku, Muslim Aliev, Envir Bekirov and Vadim Siruk have been in detention since armed searches of a number of homes in February 2016. Kuku is a human rights activist and representative for the Yalta region of the Crimean Contact Group on Human Rights. He had already faced harassment on other pretexts, and there is every reason to link his arrest with his human rights activities. Two months later, in an identical wave of raids, four Crimean Tatars Enver Mamutov, Rustem Abiltarov, Remzi Memetov and Zevri Abseitov were arrested on the same unsubstantiated charges.
The arrest, also on Hizb ut-Tahrir charges on April 18 of two very young Crimean Tatar men Arsen Dzhepparov and Refat Alimov did not fit the pattern. The initial suspicion that the FSB might be hoping that young men could be more easily broken appears to be justified. Arsen Dzhepparov was first placed in a cell with men accused of rape, then thrown into a solitary confinement punishment cell and later returned to the suspected rapists. The pressure on him intensified after his mother refused to persuade her son to ‘cooperate’ with the investigators. The families of other men have also faced such pressure, while the men themselves are being held in intolerable conditions.
14 families have been torn apart, 36 children, many very small, deprived of their fathers. In a moving address to other Crimean Tatars, Lilia Budzhurova wrote that “they are now our children”.
These are now our political prisoners. Abdureshit Dzhepparov, Coordinator of the Crimean Contact Group on Human Rights is under no illusion about Russia’s aim to drive Crimean Tatars from their homeland, and its calculation.
“These are simply Crimean Muslims. You don’t have to be an extremist or terrorist, or even a member of the Hizb ut-Tahrir organization. They’ve just understood that that works…. When they talk about Islamists, Muslims and dub them terrorists, the world begins to wonder, thinking maybe it’s true, and they’ve probably checked”.
The only thing that has been checked is how much the world will protest. Thus far, not very much at all despite mounting repression.