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Russia uses same fake witnesses in multiple ‘trials’ of Crimean Tatar political prisoners

Halya Coynash
A ‘secret prosecution witness’ in Russia’s latest trial of Crimean Tatars was outed on 17 February as a person whom the FSB have already used to imprison other civic activists and journalists and who has a vested interest in doing what the FSB demand

From left Amet Suleymanov, Rustem Seitmemetov, Osman Seitumerov, Seitumer Seitumerov Photos from Crimean Solidarity

A ‘secret prosecution witness’ in Russia’s latest trial of Crimean Tatars was outed on 17 February as a person whom the FSB have already used to imprison other civic activists and journalists and who has a vested interest in doing what the FSB demand. Both he and another secret witness proved suspiciously unable to answer the very simplest of questions put by the defence, such as the location of the mosque where one of them claimed to have met the men now on trial.

Both the defendants and their lawyers are convinced that they have identified the first of these ‘secret witnesses’ as Salakhutdin Nazrullayev.  During the trial now taking place at the Southern Military Court in Rostov (Russia), he is given the pseudonym Osmanov, but was called Ivan Bekirov in the trial of Crimean Solidarity Coordinator and Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, Server Mustafayev and seven other Crimean Tatar political prisoners. Nazrullayev is from Uzbekistan and does not (or earlier did not) have legal papers to enable him to remain in Russian-occupied Crimea.  He was one of two secret witnesses during the earlier trial whose precarious position in Crimea made it extremely easy for the FSB to put pressure on them.

There were other grounds as well for concern about his contradictory testimony and the improbable manner in which he was able to reel off details that fitted the prosecution’s case, while ‘not remembering’ absolutely basic facts about meetings, places, etc.  It was also noticeable how long he took before giving comprehensive answers, with the defence legitimately suspecting that he was consulting with somebody sitting in the room with him, before answering by video link.

None of this was deemed important by the judges who rejected the application for the witness to be formally identified and properly questioned.  It is most unlikely that the European Court of Human Rights will take the same position.  No proof has ever been presented in any of Russia’s trials of Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian political prisoners that secret witnesses have reason to fear for their safety should they reveal their identity. Indeed, on a couple of occasions, the ‘witnesses’ have either just said that they “don’t want to” go public, or have needed to be prompted by the prosecutor into claiming that they are afraid. 

Concern about the resulting inability to verify such testimony is acute in this case since the four men on trial (and a fifth, tried in absentia) are not accused of any recognizable crime, only of ‘involvement’ in a peaceful organization, Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is legal in Ukraine.  There is no real evidence of such ‘involvement’, which is why the Russian FSB are resorting to fake witnesses kept secret.

Russia is already flouting a European Court of Human Rights judgement on this subject.  In the Case of Vasilyev and Others v. Russia from 22 September 2020, the Court found that Russia had violated the right to a fair trial of three men because of the unwarranted use of ‘secret witnesses’ to convict them.

In its assessment, the Court referred to basic principles – whether there had been good reasons for keeping the anonymous witnesses’ identity secret; “whether the evidence of those witnesses was the sole or decisive basis of the conviction”; and “whether there were sufficient counterbalancing factors, including the existence of strong procedural safeguards, to permit a fair and proper assessment of the reliability of that evidence to take place.”  Subjective fears by a witness, the Court stressed, cannot suffice, and courts must ascertain that there are objective grounds, backed by evidence.  The Court pointed to all the same details that apply in this case, and specifically noted that “there is no indication in the judgment that the judge was alive to the need to approach the anonymous evidence with caution. In particular, he did not show that he was aware that the statements by anonymous witnesses carried less weight and did not provide detailed reasoning as to why he considered that evidence to be reliable, while having regard also to the other evidence available “

On all those grounds, the European Court of Human Rights concluded that there had been a violation of the men’s right to a fair trial (Article 6 §§ 1 and 3 (d) of the European Convention).

All of the Court’s reasoning applies to this case as well, with the only difference now being that the men are facing significantly longer prison sentences.  This is for no good reason, merely that Russia began increasing the sentences in 2014, and by now has sentenced a number of Crimean Tatars to 19 years’ imprisonment without any crime.

This is yet another Crimean Tatar trial where the FSB have targeted many members of one family.  The armed ‘operation’ on 11 March 2020 resulted in the arrests of two brothers – 32-year-old Seitumer and 28-year-old Osman Seitumerov, sons of  Shurki Seitumerov, a renowned historian and veteran of the Crimean Tatar national movement.  The two brothers’ uncle Rustem Seitmemetov was also arrested, as was Amet Suleimanov, a 36-year-old Crimean Solidarity activist and civic journalist who had information about Russia’s ever-mounting number of arrests and political trials on to the Internet.  The four men are charged with ‘involvement’ in Hizb ut-Tahrir, the peaceful Muslim party which is legal in Ukraine, but which Russia once declared ‘terrorist’, without any grounds and is now using for its persecution of Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainian Muslims.  A fifth person, a journalist who is also called Seitumer Seitumerov, is charged with ‘organizing’ such an alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir group under Article 205.5 § 1  of Russia’s criminal code (as opposed to 205.5 § 2 in the case of the other men).  It is, in fact, good that for the moment only journalist Seitumerov is accused of the more serious charge since he is safely in mainland Ukraine and the charges against him are in absentia.

Suleimanov has a very grave heart condition which is so bad that even the Russian-controlled prosecutor and court back in March 2020 understood that imprisonment would kill him within days.  He was placed under house arrest, and under the first disastrous hearing when he was taken by force to Rostov, has been allowed to take part by video link from the Crimean military garrison court.  

The court in Rostov on 17 February extended Suleimanov’s house arrest, despite medical documentation provided by the defence indicating that Suleimanov is in urgent need of proper hospital care, and needs an operation to replace a faulty heart valve.  Like very many other imprisoned civic activists, Suleimanov had earlier faced administrative prosecution for perfectly legal acts of solidarity with other political prisoners. 

The next hearing is scheduled for 10 March.

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