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Russia turns to abduction & torture to try to discredit the Crimean Tatar Mejlis

Halya Coynash

Oleksandr Steshenko, the young Ukrainian who disappeared after being seized by the FSB in occupied Crimea, has been shown on Russian television ‘confessing’ to involvement in an ‘extremist group’ supposedly created by the Head of the Mejlis, or self-governing body, of the Crimean Tatar people.  This alleged ‘plot’ has been made public just days after Ukraine approached the International Court of Justice asking why Russia is continuing to flout the Court’s direct order to end its ban of the Mejlis.  Even without the suspicious timing, this overt attempt to discredit Mejlis leaders is simply absurdly implausible.  The story is ‘backed’ only by the testimony of a young man detained on a totally different pretext, then abducted before his lawyer was able to speak to him and held incommunicado for almost a month.

The FSB story is that an ‘extremist group’ was started up by Erol Veliev, an adviser to Mustafa Dzhemilev, veteran leader of the Crimean Tatar national movement, first Head of the Mejlis and Ukrainian MP.  Veliev is supposed to have been taking orders from the current Head of the Mejlis, Refat Chubarov.  Russia banned both Dzhemilev and Chubarov from their homeland in the first months after its invasion and annexation of Crimea and it has since initiated surreal criminal proceedings against them, with the charge against Chubarov being of ‘public calls to action aimed at violating Russia’s territorial integrity’.  That is what Russia tries to call Chubarov’s position that Russia must stop occupying his Crimean homeland.

Veliev is supposed to have formed this ‘extremist group’ in Kharkiv together with two ‘boxers’ – Oleksandr Steshenko and Oleksandr Tretyakov. 

The FSB claim that the “the extremists were planning to carry out crimes motivated by political animosity aimed at frightening pro-Russian Crimean Tatars and heightening inter-ethnic tension in Crimea”.

In January 2018, they allegedly carried out an arson attack, with the use of Molotov cocktails, to the home of the Mufti of Crimea Emirali Ablaev who has, according to the FSB, “made a considerable contribution to strengthening national unity”.

Ablaev is one of the few prominent Crimean Tatars who chose in 2014 to collaborate with the Russian occupation regime.  There have been allegations that he has helped Russia to persecute Crimean Tatars, the vast majority of whom support the Mejlis in its implacable opposition to Russian occupation of Ukrainian Crimea.

The FSB assert that the supposed members of this ‘extremist group’ were promised 500 dollars for each ‘action’ in Crimea. 

Steshenko was purportedly ‘uncovered’ as he tried to enter Crimea in April on Veliev’s orders to carry out ‘provocation’ on the eve of the signing of a presidential decree on ‘rehabilitation’. 

The text then jumps to saying that criminal proceedings were brought over an arson attack on a police building in Crimea, with no details of what this allegedly entailed.

Criminal proceedings have also been initiated over supposed ‘creation of an extremist society or recruiting people to take part in an extremist society against Veliev, and of taking part in such a society in the case of Steshenko and Tretyakov. Veliev and Tretyakov have been placed on the federal wanted list.

It was feared from the moment that Steshenko disappeared for the second time that the FSB might be planning to use him for a serious criminal prosecution. 

The 27-year-old from Kharkiv disappeared on 11 April after telling his mother on the phone that he had been stopped by Russian border guards who doubted that he was the person on the photo in his passport.

On 14 April, the FSB border administration in Simferopol confirmed that Steshenko was in their custody, but would not allow a lawyer to see him, with this repeated on 16 April. At this stage, the lawyer was given the same reason for his detention that Steshenko mentioned when he last spoke with his mother on 11 April.  

The pretext was implausible, since Steshenko had travelled to Crimea several times using that same passport.

A new excuse soon emerged.  On 24 April lawyer Edem Semedlyaev reported having discovered Steshenko’s whereabouts.  He had been told that the young Kharkiv man had been detained for smoking at the bus station, with the term of administrative arrest due to end at 22.00 on 24 April, i.e. that evening.  Semedlyaev had once been able to visit Steshenko,  The young man had not wanted to give any details, but said that the official version was that he’d been detained for smoking at the station. He added that he had not been shown the court order.

Semedlyaev did mention then that it was widespread practice for the FSB to first place somebody in administrative arrest, and then to bring more serious criminal charges.  

Semedlyaev’s colleague Aider Azamatov then spent all day on 26 April trying, in vain, to find Steshenko who was supposed to have been taken away by unidentified individuals after serving the administrative arrest.

Azamatov finally tracked down some information in the Zheleznodorozhny District Court in Simferopol, with this yet again different from the first two versions (1 – that they suspected that the photo didn’t match; 2 – that he had been smoking at the station).  This time, the charge was under Article 19.3 of Russia’s Code of Administrative Offences – disobeying the legitimate demand of a police officer. 

Supposedly at the bus station, near the railway station, he was approached by police officers who said he was smoking in a place where this is not allowed, and told him to come with them to the police station. He refused and, according to the police, tried to push them away when they tried to force him into their car.

According to the documents, Steshenko said that he didn’t want a lawyer, would represent himself, admitted guilt and was supposed to get a copy of the court ruling. 

He was sentenced to 12 days administrative arrest and did not receive a copy of the court ruling..

He had not been seen since that one visit by Semedlyaev, and his whereabouts were unknown until the FSB and Russian media reports on 21 May. 

In a statement issued on Monday evening, Refat Chubarov said that they have reliable information that Steshenko was tortured. 

Both this ‘extremist society’ case and the earlier arrests in Bakhchysarai of two civic activists Server Mustafaev and Edem Smailov are aimed, he added, at trying to justify repressive measures against the Crimean Tatar people by claiming that this is about fighting ‘terrorism and extremism’.

The video circulated by the FSB shows Steshenko looking stressed and speaking as though saying what is required of him.  As with all such FSB videos, these are ‘confessions’ for TV carried out with total disregard for procedure. 

Everything about this FSB story seems about propaganda for a domestic audience, aimed at discrediting the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people and its internationally-respected leaders. 

Russia’s ban of the Mejlis was internationally condemned and, as mentioned, deemed serious enough for the International Court of Justice to demand its withdrawal. Abducting and torturing a young man for ‘confessions’ cannot change either the international recognition that this self-governing body of the main indigenous people of Crimea enjoy, nor the rejection of Russia’s attempts to discredit it, rather than fulfilling its international obligations.


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