war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Russia frees jailed Crimean Tatar leaders Chiygoz and Umerov but into exile from Crimea

Halya Coynash

More details have emerged of the unexpected release on October 25 of imprisoned Crimean Tatar leaders Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov.  The initial reports that Russia was not preventing them from returning to Crimea were too optimistic and both will, like other Crimean Tatar leaders, be exiled while Crimea remains under occupation. 

It seems that the arrangements were made for this release some two weeks ago, but kept secret to avoid any disruption. 

Nikolai Polozov, who represented Chiygoz throughout, but was illegally prevented from remaining Umerov’s lawyer, has stressed that neither man asked for a pardon.

“Neither Akhtem Chiygoz nor Ilmi Umerov signed or wrote any requests for a pardon, amnesty or anything else.  They are heroes of the Crimean Tatar people, Ukrainian political prisoners for whom moral principles and conscience are higher even than their own freedom.  They are not people who can be brought to their knees and forced to ask for any favours from the Russian state”, Polozov said.

The Russian-controlled Crimea Info website has reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ‘pardoned’ the two men at the request of the Mufti of Crimea, Emirali Ablaev.  This does not, in fact, contradict Polozov’s statement.  Ablaev chose to collaborate with the Russian occupiers early on and any such application would almost certainly have been at Moscow’s instigation.  He was later reported to have thanked the Russian President for their release.  His silence over political persecution over the last few years has been deafening, and Polozov has suggested that Ablaev may have been one of the ‘secret witnesses’ whom Russia pulled out for the Chiygoz ‘trial’

It has since been confirmed by people close to Umerov and Chiygoz that attempts were made to get them to sign appeals for a pardon.  They both refused, but did agree to withdraw their appeals.

Polozov’s earlier statement that the charges had been revoked does not appear to be correct.  This is important because there are five other men who are still  facing lawless charges over the same pre-annexation demonstration that Chiygoz had been in prison over since January 2015.  It was clear from the outset that the other charges were linked with the desire to put Chiygoz on trial, and the two men who were held in custody for around two years – Ali Asanov and Mustafa Degermendzhy – were almost certainly there because of their refusal to bear false testimony against Chiygoz.  There is no ‘case’ against any of the men. 

It should also be stressed that the number of other Crimean political prisoners has increased dramatically over the last month, and still comes to at least 47, as well as Asanov and Degermendzhy who are now under house arrest. (details here).

There are at present no grounds for seeing this as some kind of positive development.  It seems much more likely that Russia is imitating progress, especially given the provisional measures imposed by the UN’s International Court of Justice in April 2017.  As reported, the Court in the Hague has accepted Ukraine’s claim against Russia of infringing the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and also agreed that such provisional measures were required to prevent irreversible damage.  The Court specifically ordered Russia to stop its persecution of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis [representative assembly] and its members.  Akhtem Chiygoz is the Deputy Chair of the Mejlis, and was doubtless arrested as the highest-ranking leader of the Mejlis, after Russia banished the Chair Refat Chubarov from his homeland.  Ilmi Umerov is a First Deputy Head of the Mejlis, which still remains banned, despite the Court’s ruling.

Russia can hardly hope to convince the Hague Court and the international community that the Crimean Tatars are not facing persecution and discrimination when so many Crimean Tatar Mejlis leaders are banned from their native land.  Mustafa Dzhemilev was 6 months old when the entire Crimean Tatar people were deported under Joseph Stalin.  He was banished from Crimea again 70 years later, a month after Russia’s annexation.  Since then a number of Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians have either been forced into exile by threat of arrest and imprisonment, or positively banned.  Refat Chubarov, Mejlis Chair was banned from returning to Crimea in July 2014.  He has now explained that both his Deputy, Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov will be forced to live away from Crimea until the occupation ends and they can all return together.

It was clear from Chubarov’s press briefing on Wednesday that many international structures and governments have been involved in trying to get Chiygoz and Umerov released. 

The real sentence passed on Ilmi Umerov on September 27 had come as a particular blow because of the 60-year-old’s grave medical problems which could have made it a death sentence.

The fact that the charges against both men were legally nonsensical is unlikely to have been a factor.  This, after all, applies to all of the politically motivated charges since Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and another Crimean Tatar activist Suleyman Kadyrov is now facing essentially the same charges as those against Umerov.

Akhtem Chiygoz was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment on September 12, after having been held in appalling conditions in the Simferopol SIZO [remand prison] since January 29, 2015.  He was not allowed to attend his own trial, and was also prevented from attending his own mother’s funeral, having been taken to see her before her death for a mere ten minutes.

The charges were of pure legal nihilism, since they pertained to a demonstration that took place on February 26, 2014, on Ukrainian territory and under Ukrainian law.  Even had Russia had jurisdiction, there would have still been absolutely no grounds to the charge of ‘organizing a mass riot’, since there had been no mass riot, and Chiygoz was not in charge anyway.

This so-called ’26 February’ case was openly anti-Crimean Tatar and seemed a clear act of revenge against the Mejlis which blocked Russia’s attempt to carry off a coup without the use of Russian forces.  (Details here and  here. )

Ilmi Umerov was convicted of so-called ‘public calls to violate Russia’s territorial integrity’ over an interview he gave in Crimean Tatar in March 2016.  He was accused of having said that Russia must be made to leave Crimea and Donbas.

There would have been no such public calls even if he had said this, but he did not, and the indictment was grossly falsified.  He stated the following, with respect to international sanctions:

“If they all together strengthened, broadened and deepened sanctions, if in this way they forced Russia to give up Crimea, and leave Donetsk and Luhansk, if we returned Ukraine’s borders, after that the influence of these international organizations would be stronger. “

No ‘public calls’ and the same position on Crimea as that presented by the UN, OSCE, EU and all democratic nations (more details here).

Umerov, Ukrainian journalist Mykola Semena (who received a suspended sentence on similar charges) and now Kadyrov, were all in fact defending Russia’s correct borders – and their own country, Ukraine.

Umerov’s final words at his trial apply to both men, and to all Russia’s politically motivated trials of Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians in Crimea:

“Those in Crimea who betrayed Ukraine are prosecuting those who did not.

Traitors are prosecuting patriots!

The struggle will continue, regardless of the content of the sentence.

The Crimean Tatar people are upholding in this the security of the entire civilized world. If Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and Crimea remain unpunished, this will provide a precedent resulting in the final collapse of the entire world order.” 

(the speech in full can be found here)


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