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ECHR demands answers from Russia as Crimean Tatars tortured and prevented from seeing proper lawyers

13.09.2021
Halya Coynash

From left Aziz Akhtem(ov), Asan Akhtem(ov) and Nariman Dzhelyal

The European Court of Human Rights has demanded that Russia provide information regarding its treatment of Crimean Tatar Mejlis leader Nariman Dzhelyal and Asan Akhtemov (or Akhtem).  The questions concern both access to a lawyer of their choice and medical examinations and are of critical importance since both Asan Akhtemov and his cousin, Aziz Akhtemov, have been prevented from seeing an independent lawyer for over a week.  There are extremely strong grounds for assuming that both cousins gave videoed ‘confessions’ under torture, and that they remain in danger of such torture until allowed to see proper lawyers.

Ukrainian lawyer Yevhenia Zakrevska is representing the families of Dzhelyal and Asan Akhtemov in dealings with the Court [ECHR] and lodged an application on 6 September, asking that the Court impose urgent measures under Rule 39.  As well as the men’s release, she asked the Court to ensure access to lawyers and a proper medical examination to detect signs of torture.  ECHR has responded by demanding, by 23 September, information regarding access to lawyers of their choice; medical examinations and response to complaints – from Asan Akhtemov or his family – of his ill-treatment.  While previous experience suggests that Russia will simply lie with respect to the medical details, the lack of access to a lawyer will be significantly harder to justify.  Russia’s FSB used identical methods against the men seized in August 2016 and tortured into providing ‘confessions’ on video but was forced to allow Yevhen Panov to see a lawyer after ECHR intervened.  Panov immediately retracted all testimony and gave details of the torture he had endured.

Nariman Dzhelyal is First Deputy Chairman of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, or representative assembly, and an internationally known human rights defender.  The FSB have not, therefore, tried to prevent him having lawyers of his choice, but have forced Nikolai Polozov and Emine Avamileva to sign undertakings not to divulge any information about details of the criminal ‘investigation’.  There are no state secrets in this case so such a non-divulgence agreement, on threat of criminal prosecution, is already an indication of all that the FSB need to hide in the case. 

Dzhelyal was held for the first 24 hours in handcuffs and with a bag over his head.  He had no access to a lawyer and was given nothing to drink or eat.   This appalling treatment is, however, nothing in comparison with what we know Asan and Aziz Akhtemov were subjected to.   

While there is no documentary evidence to corroborate the following account, it is consistent with other accounts of FSB torture.  There is, also, no good reason to prevent the two men from seeing lawyers of their choice unless there is a great deal, including physical signs of torture that the FSB want to conceal.  Dzhelyal was able to fleetingly see Asan Akhtemov who nodded his head when Dzhelyal asked him if he had been beaten.  Polozov saw him on 10 September and reported that he was limping and bent over.  He also confirmed that an ambulance had needed to be called to the 32-year-old who, prior to his effective abduction by night on 3-4 September, was in perfectly good health.  Essentially the only person who has been able to see Asan is his wife.  She was allowed less than five minutes, with guards nearby.  It is probably those few minutes that provided critical information. 

Both cousins are reported to have been beaten and tortured for the first three days, with the FSB using ways of avoiding obvious external marks.  It was Asan Akhtem who had the worst of it because he held out.  He was taken to a forest near Bakhchysarai and subjected to mock executions.  They forced him to kneel by a pit, with shots fired near his ear, with his torturers saying that they would bury him and nobody would find him. Later, in the same forest, they told him to run while telling him that they would say that they had shot him as he tried to escape.

Wires were attached to his earlobes and an electric current passed through, with the pain unendurable, as though your very brain is on fire.

An FSB-appointed ‘lawyer’ was present during this torture.  When Asan asked how he could allow this, he calmly replied that “this is standard procedure”.   Refat Chubarov, Chairman of the Mejlis, has learned that the supposed ‘lawyer’ in Asan Akhtemov’s case is Oleg Hlushko; in the case of Aziz Akhtemov, who was clearly also tortured, this FSB-loyal individual was Alexander Polyansky.

Asan Akhtemov’s wife was also subjected to threats of reprisals if she “didn’t stop making a noise”, and it clearly took a long time to persuade her to speak.

It is certainly true that the men are much safer if details are revealed, and if “the noise” makes it possible to ensure that the men have access to real lawyers.  Russia’s attack on Dzhelyal and its overt persecution of civic activists and journalists do mean that each person who speaks out is taking a huge risk.

The above account is fully consistent with the testimony of Yevhen Panov and other former political prisoners, and it is extremely close to that given by journalist and political prisoner Vladislav Yesypenko

Such similarities are hardly surprising, since the two cases are both under the same ‘FSB senior investigator’, Vitaly Olegovich Vlasov.  Yesypenko has already given a detailed account to the court about the torture used to obtain his ‘confession’ which he retracted as soon as he could see a proper lawyer. 

This is, doubtless, the reason why the Russian FSB are trying to keep the two men hidden.  Russia is very obviously targeting Nariman Dzhelyal and doing so in retaliation for Dzhelyal’s courageous position in speaking out about human rights violations in occupied Crimea and, in particular, his participation in the inauguration of the international Crimea Platform in Kyiv.  Using ‘confessions’’ tortured out of men who were taken from their homes in the middle of the night and are being held without access to lawyers, Russia has now even increased the charges against Dzhelyal.  He is now accused, like the Akhtemov’s, of ‘committing an act of sabotage’, under Article 281 § 1 of Russia’s criminal code, with this carrying a sentence of from 10 to 15 years.  The alleged ‘sabotage’ took place while he was at the Crimea Platform, meeting with high-ranking representatives of EU countries; the USA and Canada. 

See: Russia claims Ukraine and Crimean Tatar Mejlis organized ‘act of sabotage’ in occupied Crimea

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