Russia uses denunciation as pretext for new repression against Crimean Tatar Mejlis

Halya Coynash

Nariman Dzhelyal, First Deputy Head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, or representative assembly has faced interrogation in Russia’s so-called ‘Centre for Countering Extremism’, with the move a menacing warning of what could follow.  Russia is resurrecting the worst traditions of Soviet times, and a denunciation was given as pretext for the summons. 

Dzhelyal himself explained that he was interrogated over an interview given to the Ukrainian TV 112 in autumn 2016.  He was introduced on the program as the Deputy Head of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people.  Since he did not deny this, a supposed private individual had written a denunciation demanding that criminal proceedings be brought against him for ‘involvement in an extremist organization’.  Despite international condemnation, the Russian Supreme Court on Sept. 29, 2016 upheld Russia’s ban on the self-governing body of the main indigenous people of Crimea.  Since that ruling, it has seemed a matter of time before Mejlis members face new acts of repression.  The timing is, nonetheless, extraordinary since the summons on March 13 comes just days after the UN’s International Court of Justice at the Hague held preliminary hearings into Ukraine’s suit against Russia.  Among the charges Russia is facing is one of discrimination against Crimean Tatars in Russian-occupied Crimea, with the banning of the Mejlis cited as one of the examples.  A decision on whether to apply provisional measures against Russia is due by the end of April.

Dzhelyal was accompanied by his lawyer on Monday, and says that for the moment they demanded only a so-called ‘explanation’ from him.

He was, however, then called into another office where he was grilled about his Facebook ‘friendship’ with Marlen Mustafaev, the civic activist jailed on Feb 21 for 11 days on a surreal charge relating to a Hizb ut-Tahrir symbol on a post from 2014.  Hizb ut-Tahrir is legal in Ukraine and has never committed any act of terrorism anywhere in the world, yet Russia arbitrarily declared it ‘terrorist’ in 2003 and has now illegally arrested 19 Crimean Muslims on unsubstantiated charges of involvement in it. 

Dzhelyal does not personally know Mustafaev, and has a very considerable number of Facebook friends.  He knew only of the detention, both of Mustafaev and of 10 neighbours who came out in totally peaceful solidarity and to report the search underway.  He had expressed his view over the measures applied publicly, so the interrogation on this subject was both absurd and ominous. 

Russia has tried hard, but with zero credibility, to slander the Crimean Tatar Mejlis.  During the International Court proceedings on March 7, Grigory Lukyantsev, from the Russian team, claimed that the body, which represents the vast majority of Crimean Tatars, had been involved in violence since 1992.  

Ukraine, in close cooperation with the Mejlis, is also challenging the extraordinary ban at the European Court of Human Rights. 

Although the formal ruling banning the Mejlis was on April 26, 2016 and only came into force at the end of September, repressive measures began shortly after Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea.  The Mejlis had called on all Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians to boycott the pseudo-referendum with which Russia attempted to give legitimacy to its land-grab.  Veteran Crimean Tatar leader and former Mejlis leader Mustafa Dzhemiliev was banned from his homeland in April 2014, with a ban on the current Mejlis Head Refat Chubarov following in July that same year. 

The offensive against the Mejlis itself intensified in September 2014, after the Mejlis again called for a boycott of equally fraudulent ‘elections’.  Then in January 2015, Akhtem Chiygoz, the Mejlis’ Deputy Head was arrested and remains imprisoned on surreal and thoroughly lawless charges.  Another Mejlis leader Ilmi Umerov is also facing a 5-year jail sentence, quite literally for saying that Russia should be made to leave Crimea. 

The banning of the Mejlis as ‘extremist’ came in stages, probably to see how much condemnation there was abroad.  There was never more than ‘deep concern’ and  Russia moved from threats to specific action, with a ‘court application’ first lodged in February, 2016. The ban was then made a fait accompli on April 13 when the de facto prosecutor Natalya Poklonskaya announced that she was ‘suspending’ the Mejlis without a court ruling.  Russia’s justice ministry then also saw no need to await a court ruling and on April 18 added the Crimean Tatar Mejlis to its list of “civic or religious organizations whose activities have been suspended due to their extremist activities.” 

Prominent Crimean Tatar lawyer Emil Kurbedinov has long warned that it is only a matter of time before a new offensive. 

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