Convictions demanded in Russia’s most cynical and tragic attack on elderly Crimean Tatars
The ‘prosecution’ in Russian-occupied Crimea has demanded suspended sentences for four respected members of the Crimean Tatar community after a farcical ‘trial’ that would have been comical had the FSB not already caused one death, and effectively tortured two of the ‘defendants’.
During the concluding hearing at the ‘Kievsky District Court’ in Simferopol on 10 April, the de facto prosecutor claimed that the four defendants were guilty. He said he was asking for suspended sentences because of the men’s age, the fact that all had good character references and no criminal record and due to “their partial admission of guilt”. The last was a pure fabrication since all four men have denied the charges.
He asked for a three and a half-year suspended sentence for 65-year-old Asan Chapukh, and three years, also suspended, for 62-year-old Kyazim Ametov, Bekir Degermendzhy (58) and Ruslan Trubach (54). In all cases, this would be with a three-year probation period.
As lawyer Edem Semedlyaev noted, the prosecution was based entirely on the testimony of one man who had been quite unable to explain why he had felt ‘threatened’ by men so much older than him. This was of critical importance since the prosecution’s claim that the men had been trying to ‘extort’ seven thousand USD from the Turkish national was refuted by the fact that this man, Yusuf Aitan, had himself signed a piece of paper confirming that he had borrowed this amount of money from 83-year-old veteran of the Crimean Tatar national movement, Vedzhie Kashka.
On 23 November 2017, the FSB staged a violent ‘special operation’ against Vedzhie Kashka and the four men, claiming that they had tried to ‘extort’ money from Aitan. There are strong grounds for believing that excessive force was applied during the attempt to arrest Vedzhie Kashka, with the real cause of her death minutes later still unclear. Even if the physical marks on the 83-year-old’s body were caused by resuscitation efforts in the ambulance where she died, the fact that all video footage of her arrest was removed suggests that the officers have a lot to hide.
The disappearance of this video is all the more suspicion given the huge amount of coverage on Russian and Russian-controlled propaganda channels of two of the men being forced to the ground and handcuffed.
The four men, all of whom have been active in defending political prisoners since annexation and in the Crimean Tatar national movement, were taken into custody.
The ‘operation’ came six months after the UN’s International Court of Justice had ordered Russia to revoke its ban on the Mejlis, or representative assembly, of the Crimean Tatar people. Russia has refused to do this, and it was evident from the wide coverage given to the arrests of the men, and the unsubstantiated claims made, that the aim was to (inaccurately) link the men with the Mejlis in an attempt to discredit the latter.
There are two different versions of the events that prompted this ‘operation’. According to the Kashka family and all of the four men, Vedzhie Kashka had asked the men to help her since Aitan, who had married (and then abandoned) her granddaughter, had borrowed the 7 thousand USD and was refusing to return it.
The FSB decided to claim that this was an attempt to ‘extort’ Aitan’s money. Both Aitan and the prosecution tried to explain away the document he had signed, confirming the receipt of the Kashka family’s money, as having been given “under pressure”. As well as the difference in age, two of the men – Chapukh and Degermendzhy – were in very poor health, making their alleged threats of physical reprisals as the supposed reason for the document highly implausible. They had also purportedly taken the documents for his car away though, again, it is unclear why he allowed this.
It was also claimed that the enforcement officers had ‘found’ three Kalashnikov rifles and several bullets during the ‘search’ of Chapukh’s home, with this widely mentioned during the Russian state-controlled media attempts to link the case with the Mejlis.
Aside from Aitan, there were no other real witnesses for the prosecution, with the people brought to give testimony having been used as ‘witnesses’ of the searches and arrests. Some of the witnesses, in fact, confirmed the men’s story, including Saniye Ametova who said that the elderly lady had told her that Aitan had taken the money and vanished. Vedzhie Kashka’s granddaughter told the court that when Aitan left her, he stole 700 dollars which was to be used for her grandmother’s medical treatment.
Aitan himself, who is believed by the Kashka family and the defence, to have been a petty crook who tricked women into marrying him, gave extremely contradictory testimony during the trial. He asserted, variously, that the men had threatened him with deportation from Crimea; to cut out his kidney; to kill him, and to sell him into slavery. Although he allegedly took all such ‘threats’ seriously, he saw no problem in leaving his car at the Kashka home and only picking it up a month after the supposed ‘extortion’.
The ‘judge’ in this case, Mikhail Belousov, has clearly taken the prosecution’s side. He rejected, for example, the defence’s application to have video footage shown that would demonstrate how the Kalashnikov machine guns had appeared at Chapukh’s home. Chapukh himself had asked, during one of the hearings, how it could be explained that no biological traces had been found on Kalashnikovs which he was alleged to own.
All four men were held in custody for well over a year, despite the fact that Degermendzhy’s severe asthma meant he should not be in detention at all, and Chapukh had suffered a mini-stroke shortly after his arrest. All were held in the Simferopol SIZO [remand prison] where the conditions are tantamount to torture even for men in good health. Chapukh had lost control of one side of his body, was unable to speak and was totally dependent on cellmates, yet was only finally released under house arrest when it became obvious even to the FSB that he could die at any moment. Degermendzhy’s asthma became so acute that he needed to be admitted to an emergency ward. He was held there under guard, and his wife was prevented from seeing him. He was moved, as soon as his condition stabilized, supposedly to a normal ward, though in fact to the corridor outside the ward, and then back to the SIZO. During at least one of the ‘detention hearings’, Degermendzhy needed to sit with an oxygen mask on, yet the ‘judge’ still remanded him in custody for a further two months.
This is undoubtedly a political trial and, unfortunately, Belousov has given every reason to fear that he will go along with it to the end. The next, presumably, final hearing is scheduled for 17 April.