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Mass armed searches for ‘prohibited books’ and arrests in Russian-occupied Crimea
Russia’s FSB have arrested six Ukrainian Muslims, five of them Crimean Tatars, after armed searches of seven homes in the early morning of 17 February 2021. The FSB and heavily armed Rosgvardia officers were clearly interested only in books, and in at least one case, claimed to find the so-called ‘prohibited literature’ that they pulled from their own bag. Russia has again targeted civic activists, some of whom have already faced administrative prosecution for peaceful pickets in solidarity with Russia’s ever-mounting number of Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian political prisoners. On Wednesday morning, the FSB came for those courageous men, with their children traumatized by seeing masked officers with machine guns forcing their fathers to the ground and then taking them away in handcuffs.
There was an especially cynical slant to the events on 17 February. The FSB has presumably understood that terrorizing small children and imposing 15-20-year sentences against their fathers or grandfathers for civic activism and kitchen conversations are not what most people view as ‘fighting terrorism’. This time, they first circulated, via state-controlled media, false information about the supposed arrests in Crimea and in Russia of Islamic radicals from an organization called Takfir wal-Hijra, who were claimed to be “planning terrorist attacks in the North Caucuses. According to Russian journalist, Anton Naumlyuk, the FSB have claimed that this organization was behind a terrorist attack on a cinema, however some human rights defenders believe that the FSB is fabricating such activities whereas the organization no longer exists.
This was quite deliberate misinformation, with the reason easy to understand. Russia has being using ‘terrorism’ charges against devout, law-abiding Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian Muslims since 2015, both as a means of imprisoning civic activists and journalists, and in an effort to demonize Crimean Tatars, the indigenous people of Crimea, who in the main identify with Ukraine and opposed Russian occupation. The true nature of such ‘trials’ is increasingly understood both in Crimea, and by the international community, with the men recognized as political prisoners.
There is nothing on the FSB press service’s site to substantiate the claimed ‘operation’ shown by Crimea24 and RIA Novosti. The FSB on this video can be seen bursting into various buildings and also pulling a machine gun, a suicide belt and ammunition from a hiding place. This is not the first time that the FSB have circulated fake videos which have nothing to do with the arrests in occupied Crimea of peaceful civic activists.
Later reports say nothing about the false information, but do make it clear that the six men from different parts of occupied Crimea are accused of ‘involvement’ in Hizb ut-Tahrir and that the only thing ‘found’ during the armed searches was ‘prohibited literature’. Hizb ut-Tahrir is a peaceful, Muslim organization which is legal in Ukraine and most countries, and which is not known to have committed acts of terrorism anywhere. Russia is using a suspect, and highly secretive, ruling by its Supreme Court in 2003 declaring Hizb ut-Tahrir ‘terrorist’ as the sole justification for charging men with ‘involvement’ or ‘organizing’ a terrorist group and, even more absurdly, ‘planning to violently seize power’. Crimean Tatars who have never committed any recognizable crime are being sentenced to up to 19.5 years’ imprisonment, in harsh regime prison colonies in Russia.
Seven men were initially detained after the armed searches on 17 February, however, Abdulobory Makhamadaminov was later released. The six men now in custody are all activists from Crimean Solidarity, the vital civic initiative that arose to help the increasing number of political prisoners and their families, and to provide information about the mounting repression.
58-year-old Azamat Eyupov took part in the peaceful protest by Crimean Tatars on Red Square in Moscow in July 2019. The men stood with banners protesting against horrific sentences passed on four Crimean Tatars from Bakhchysarai on fabricated ‘terrorism’ charges, with this enough for the Russian authorities to detain many of them as well.
50-year-old Oleh Fedorov, an ethnic Ukrainian, is a businessman from Bakhchysarai. He attended many politically motivated court hearings and took part in information campaigns and flash-mobs in support of political prisoners. He was also active in providing material aid to the families of political prisoners who are often left without the main breadwinner in the family.
Ernest Ibragimov is also from Bakhchysarai and worked for 10 years as a chef at the renowned Salachik Cultural and Ethnographic Café. The café faced constant searches and harassment under Russian occupation and was finally forced to close in 2018. In May 2016, another chef and well-known figure in Bakhchysarai, Remzi Memetov was arrested. as was in October 2017, its owner Marlen (Suleyman) Asanov, together with five other Crimean Tatars. All are recognized political prisoners, whose release has been repeatedly demanded by the UN General Assembly and other international bodies. Ibragimov, who has four young children himself, was very active in the civic initiative ‘Crimean Childhood’ which works with the children of political prisoners.
Lenur Seydametov took part in the gruelling task of getting parcels of food and other essential items to political prisoners held in the appalling conditions of the Crimean SIZO [remand prison], as well as in buying and packing parcels to send to political prisoners held in Russia.
Yashar Shikhametov was a witness for the defence in the trial of political prisoner Enver Seytosmanov. He also helped take the children of other political prisoners from Sevastopol to various children’s events.
Timur Yalkabov visited political court hearings and came out in solidarity when armed searches were underway. Since 2017, Russia has increasingly used absurd administrative prosecutions against people for as little as this, and it is almost certainly no coincidence that several Crimean Tatars were first prosecuted for administrative ‘offences’, and then, when they were not silence, were finally arrested on Hizb ut-Tahrir charges.
Such FSB ‘operations’ are certainly aimed at maximum intimidation and at instilling fear by demonstrating that essentially anybody could be next. The searches took place simultaneously in five different parts of Crimea, with the two men from Bakhchysarai (Oleh Fedorov and Ernest Ibragimov) even told that they were considered part of the ‘second Bakhchysarai group’ of civic activists whose trial and monstrous sentences are currently awaiting the appeal hearing. They are also carried out with total disregard for fundamental rights, such as the right to have a lawyer present, with phones immediately removed and lawyers prevented from entering. The FSB ‘investigator’ who took part in the ‘search’ of Fedorov’s home openly said: “You have the right to a lawyer, but you now can’t phone them”. It is clear why the FSB illegally bring the supposedly independent ‘witnesses’ with them and ensure that lawyers are not admitted. Russia is persecuting men who have committed no offence merely on the basis of purported involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir. Having discovered that lawyers in occupied Crimea are insisting upon properly defending all victims of such persecution, the FSB is increasingly resorting to planting ‘literature’ which is then treated as material evidence of involvement in the organization. Add fake ‘expert opinions’ from FSB-loyal ‘experts’ and a ‘secret witness’ or two, whose testimony can in no way be verified, and Russian courts will pass 15-20 year sentences.
15 small children have had their fathers taken away from them. Ernest Ibragimov has four children. Lenur Seydametov has three children, the youngest of whom is just a year old. Yashar Shikhametov has two children, Timur Yalkabov – five. Oleh Fedorov has two adult daughters, and grandchildren. 58-year-old Azamat Eyupov has four children and is also a grandfather. One of his children is still underage, and he has a disabled adult daughter who needs constant care.