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Crimean Tatar Editor sentenced for publishing UN report on human rights in Russian-occupied Crimea

Halya Coynash
The sentence was passed on a member of the indigenous people of Crimea, in the language and in a newspaper of that indigenous people, at the beginning of the 20th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

Bekir Mamutov with his newspaper Qirim Photo posted by Mejlis leadr, Refat Chubarov

A Russian-controlled Crimean ‘magistrate’s court’ has found Bekir Mamutov, Chief Editor of the Crimean Tatar language newspaper Qirim, ‘guilty’ of publishing the report of the UN Secretary General on the human rights situation in occupied Crimea.  The sentence, and four thousand rouble fine, was passed on a member of the indigenous people of Crimea, in the language and in a newspaper of that indigenous people, at the beginning of the 20th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York.

Officially it was not the publication of the report per se which riled the Russian censor, Roskomnadzor.  In outlining human rights violations under Russian occupation, the Secretary General referred to Russia’s ban on the Mejlis, or representative assembly, of the Crimean Tatar people in 2016, and the fact that Russia had not withdrawn this ban despite the order for it to do by the UN’s International Court of Justice on 19 April 2019.  The risk that Mejlis members face of administrative or criminal prosecution is mentioned, as are other restrictions and infringements of the right to self-determination, association and education in ones native language. 

While the UN rightly pointed to Russia’s failure to comply with a binding order from an international court, Roskomnadzor claimed that Mamutov had violated Russian legislation by not adding words about Russia’s ban on the Mejlis as an ‘extremist organization’.  These words were clearly not in the original and were not, therefore added in Qirim.

As reported, Mamutov explained his position in full during a hearing before a Russian-controlled magistrate’s court on 1 April 2021.  The Roskomnadzor representative failed to turn up, with this the reason why the ruling  – in favour of the Russian censor – and four-thousand rouble fine were only passed on 20 April, a day after the fourth anniversary of the International Court of Justice’s ruling and after the beginning of the 20th UN Conference on Indigenous Rights.

The timing is a useful reminder of just why Russia has launched such an offensive against the Mejlis, which is internationally recognized as the self-governing body of the Crimean Tatar people.  Russia’s attempt to claim that it is ‘extremist’ convinced nobody with the ban in 2016 internationally condemned as a repressive act, even an act of war, against the Crimean Tatars and their representative body which had been implacably opposed to Russia’s invasion and occupation of Crimea.

For much the same reason, Moscow has also tried to deny that the Crimean Tatars are the main indigenous people of Crimea.  It is the Crimean Tatar people who have the right to self-determination and who have unambiguously expressed their identity as part of Ukraine. 

Russia is now refusing to withdraw its ban on the Mejlis, issued as a provisional measure in 2017, and is now simply trying to drag out the proceedings at the International Court of Justice.  It is also undertaking various criminal prosecutions, including of the first leader of the Mejlis, Mustafa Dzhemilev, and its current head, Refat Chubarov, as well as administrative prosecutions, such as that against Bekir Mamutov.  The charge in his case, and sentence, which he has said he will appeal, was under

Article 13.15 of Russia’s code of administrative offences (so-called ‘abuse of freedom of mass information’) over the publication. 

The Mejlis, or ‘Crimean Tatar National Assembly’ was formed in 1991 as the executive body of the Qurultay, or National Congress.  At the end of March 2014,  Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada formally declared it to be the representative body of the Crimean Tatar people. 

The Mejlis made its opposition to Russian occupation of Crimea clear from the outset, and the repressive measures began soon after it called on all Crimeans to boycott Russia’s pseudo-referendum on 16 March, 2014.  If the initial measures mainly targeted individuals, with Mustafa Dzhemilev and the current head of the Mejlis, Refat Chubarov both banned from their homeland, this soon changed. In  September 2014, the Mejlis was evicted from its traditional headquarters, and on Jan 29, 2015, Akhtem Chiygoz, First Deputy Head of the Mejlis was arrested on legally nonsensical charges.  He spent over two and a half years imprisoned, and was sentenced to 8 years, before he and another persecuted Mejlis leader, Ilmi Umerov, were released into exile, almost certainly in a deal involving Turkey handing over two Russian state assassins accused by Istanbul of a political killing and of spying.

Threats to ban the Mejlis began in October 2015, and on February 15, 2016 the de facto prosecutor Natalya Poklonskaya announced that an application had been made for the ban, with the claim being that the Mejlis was ‘extremist’.  There were Soviet echoes in the claim that this was based on “appeals from the Crimean Tatar population, including from the heads of Crimean Tatar organizations, asking for the activities of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis to be declared unlawful and provocation”.

The formal ban was issued on April 26, 2016, with this upheld by the Russian Supreme Court on Sep 29, 2016. 

The ban received international condemnation and, as mentioned, was specifically mentioned in the provisional measures imposed by the UN’s International Court of Justice on 17 April 2017.

Instead of complying, Russia has instead used politically motivated prosecutions to try to discredit the Mejlis, with one of these particularly shocking.  On 23 November 2017, the FSB, flanked by Rosgvardia and OMON riot police, carried out an armed raid of two cafes, causing the death of 83-year-old Vedzhie Kashka through the force they applied when arresting the world-renowned veteran Crimean Tatar activist.  They also arrested four other respected members of the Crimean Tatar national movement, men in their fifties and sixties.   Although none of them was a member of the Mejlis, Russian and Russian-controlled media systematically presented them as members of the Mejlis, alleging that weapons and drugs had been found during searches (details here).

At present one Crimean Tatar is facing criminal prosecution of evidently absurd charges, almost certainly because 70-year-old Ilver Ametov is Head of the Sudak Regional Mejlis (details here)

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