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Former US Ambassador demolishes Russia's narrative about imprisoned Crimean Tatar journalist Remzi Bekirov

26.11.2021
Halya Coynash

Former US Ambassador to Ukraine William B. Taylor, Remzi Bekirov in court, Photo Crimean Solidarity

Former US Ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor has addressed a moving letter to Remzi Bekirov in Russian imprisonment, expressing admiration for Bekirov’s work as a journalist in occupied Crimea and clearly stating that Bekirov’s is unjustly imprisoned.  Bekirov is one of 11 civic journalists whom Russia has imprisoned and such voices of support from abroad send an important message to Moscow that the fabricated charges are not believed and that Moscow’s treatment of the men is under scrutiny. 

Remzi Bekirov had long worked as a civic journalist for Crimean Solidarity, and had become an accredited journalist for the Russian independent Internet publication Grani.ru shortly before his arrest in March 2019.  Like many other civic journalists and activists, he had already faced administrative prosecution and can have been in no doubt that his reporting on political trials, armed arrests, etc. meant that he himself was in danger of persecution.

In his letter to Remzi Bekirov “in jail in Russia”, dated 22 November 2021, William Taylor wrote the following:

Dear Mr Bekirov,

As Ukrainians celebrate the Day of Dignity and Freedom, let me express my strong support for your struggle for freedom and my admiration for your dignity. Your work as a journalist in Crimea is the essence of courage and commitment – courage in the face of Russian oppression and commitment to the principles of freedom and independence. Ukrainians fought for those principles during the Orange Revolution and the Revolution of Dignity. You are fighting for them from an unjust prison.

Thank you for your sacrifice and for your family’s sacrifice. You are an inspiration, not only to your fellow Ukrainians, but to freedom-loving people around the world. Europeans and Americans are appalled at your treatment and committed to your release.

With great respect,

William B. Taylor

Remzi Bekirov is one of 23 Crimean Tatars arrested on 27-28 March 2019, in Russia’s most brazen attack on civic journalists and activists in occupied Crimea.  Two other activists were arrested soon afterwards, and all 25 men are currently ‘on trial’ in Russia, with Remzi facing a sentence of up to 20 years’ imprisonment on fabricated charges that have received intentional condemnation.

A historian and tour guide by profession, Bekirov responded to mounting persecution under Russian occupation by becoming one of the first Crimean Solidarity civic journalists, reporting on armed searches, arrests and politically motivated trials.  It was he who streamed information about the detention in early March of Archbishop Klyment and who helped make sure that the mounting repression against Crimean Tatars did not go unnoticed.  

Persecution

There was doubtless harassment earlier, however on 21 February 2017, Bekirov and several other Crimean Solidarity activists were jailed for five days simply for standing and streaming information onto the Internet about the armed search of the home of Marlen Mustafaev.  

Then on 30 March 2017, Bekirov was called into the so-called Centre for countering extremism, purportedly to collect a tablet which had been taken from him. In the centre, he was detained and presented with a new administrative charge - ‘circulating extremist material’ under Article 20.29 of Russia’s Code of Administrative Offences.  The supposed extremist content was a reposted video clip about the ‘Prymorsky Partisans’, a vigilante group that targeted police officers whom they accused of brutality and corruption.  The repost itself was from 2009, i.e. seven years earlier and five years before Russia’s annexation of Crimea.  It was also disturbing that the report in question had been on a VKontakte social media page which Bekirov had deleted earlier that year.  Despite the absurdity of these charges, Bekirov was jailed for a further 3 days.

Bekirov (b. 20.02.1985) and his wife Khalide have three children – two boys (Mukhammed, born in 2009) and Salakhuddin (b. 2012) and a small daughter, Safiye, born in June 2014.  He knew very well the danger he faced and in fact called the measures against him a message to all Crimean Tatars “that they should be frightened, not come out, not be active”. Neither he, nor the other activists, let themselves be intimidated, and he continued to provide coverage of repression and to actively help the families of political prisoners. 

Unconcealed attack on civic journalists and activists

Although the armed searches and arrests on 27 March 2019 were used for propaganda purposes in the Russian and Russian-controlled media, the obvious targeting of journalists and civic activists was widely condemned by the international community, with Human Rights Watch stating that attempts to portray politically active Crimean Tatars as terrorists are aimed at silencing them, and Freedom House and Civil Rights Defenders equally clear that the arrests were to terrorize Crimean Tatars, not about fighting ‘terrorism’.

On 21 May 2019, the renowned Memorial Human Rights Centre declared the first 24 men arrested political prisoners and accused Russia of using fabricated charges carrying huge sentences to try to crush the Crimean Solidarity movement in occupied Crimea and all Crimean Tatar human rights activists.  On 18 July 2019, the European Parliament adopted a resolution in which it named all of the 25 Crimean Tatar activists among political prisoners whom it called upon Russia to release.  Their release has also been demanded by the US State Department and numerous democratic governments.

Horrific sentences for no crime

Not one of the men is charged with a recognizable crime or even a plan to commit a crime.  Instead, they are accused of ‘involvement’ in the peaceful transnational Hizb ut-Tahrir party.  This is legal in Ukraine and most other countries, however a highly secretive, unexplained and probably politically motivated ruling by Russia’s Supreme Court in 2003 declared an organization not known to have committed any acts of terror anywhere in the world ‘terrorist’. Remzi Bekirov and four other men (Rayim Aivazov; Farkhod Bazarov; Riza Izetov and Shaban Umerov  are facing the more serious charge of ‘organizing a Hizb ut-Tahrir group’ under Article 205.5 § 1 of Russia’s criminal code, the others with involvement in such an alleged group (Article 205.5 § 2). In March 2020, all 25 men were also charged, under Article 278, with “planning a violent seizure of power and change in Russia’s constitutional order”.  It is extraordinary that a country which sent in armed soldiers without insignia and paramilitaries to seize another country’s territory should now be charging Ukrainians with plans for just such a seizure.  Especially given that not one of the searches uncovered any weapons or ammunition.

Without any internationally recognized crime, men charged as ‘organizers’ are facing sentences of 18 – 20 years.  The sentences for so-called ‘involvement’ are also huge, but may be five or more years lower.  

Farcical ‘evidence’ and dubious ‘trial’

It is important to realize that these ‘trials’ do not even require evidence of actual involvement in the peaceful Hizb ut-Tahrir organization, since Russia uses ‘experts’ prepared to provide whatever ‘assessment’ the FSB requires, and ‘anonymous witnesses’ who can have been tortured or paid into testifying to having heard the men talk about Hizb ut-Tahrir.  In this case, the ‘expert assessment’ is of conversations on religious and political subjects) from 2016.

Russia has split up this case into five identical clones, almost certainly in order to deflect attention from a trial so obviously aimed at silencing those who take a firm civic position.   Remzi is ‘on trial’ together with the above-mentioned men who are also facing the more serious charges. 

During the hearings, both the men themselves, and their lawyers, have demonstrated how at least one of the anonymous ‘witnesses’ changed his testimony in line with a change in the prosecution’s charges.  That change in turn, was almost certainly after Rayim Aivazov refused to be cowered and retract his complaint about the torture he was subjected to in order to force him to sign false testimony against himself and the others.

See: Russian FSB caught doctoring anonymous witness testimony in trial of 25 Crimean Tatar activists

In an other hearing, an independent religious scholar exposed the ‘expert’ used by the FSB in these flawed ‘terrorism’ cases.  

See: Fake ‘religious expert’ exposed in Russia’s ‘trial’ of 25 Crimean Tatar journalists and civic activists

Prosecutor Yevgeny Kolpikov, together with the three judges in this case Oleg Volkov (presiding); Vitaly Mamedov and Magomedbasir Shuyapov from the Southern District Military Court in Rostov (Russia) have, from the outset, abetted the FSB, both by concealing the torture used to extract ‘confessions’ from Aivazov and the mobile phone they stole, which would corroborate Aivazov’s story, and by refusing to discard a confession which the defendant has said was given under duress.  The very fact that anonymous witnesses are playing such a role in the case is a damning indictment both of the prosecutor and the judges, since no proof at all has ever been provided that these ‘witnesses’ would be in any danger were their identity to be revealed.

PLEASE WRITE to Remzi Bekirov and, if possible, the men he is ‘on trial’ with!

The letters tell them they are not forgotten, and show Moscow that the ‘trial’ now underway is being followed. 

Letters need to be in Russian, and on ‘safe’ subjects.  If that is a problem, use the sample letter below (copying it by hand), perhaps adding a picture or photo. Do add a return address so that the men can answer.

The addresses below can be written in either Russian or in English transcription.  The particular addressee’s name and year of birth need to be given.

Sample letter

Привет,

Желаю Вам здоровья, мужества и терпения, надеюсь на скорое освобождение. Простите, что мало пишу – мне трудно писать по-русски, но мы все о Вас помним.

[Hi.  I wish you good health, courage and patience and hope that you will soon be released.  I’m sorry that this letter is short – it’s hard for me to write in Russian., but you are not forgotten. ] 

Remzi Bekirov

344022, Россия, Ростов-на-Дону, ул. Максима Горького, 219 СИЗО-1.

Бекирову, Ремзи Рустемовичу, г.р. 1985

 [In English:  344022 Russian Federation, Rostov on the Don, 219 Maxim Gorky St, SIZO-1

Bekirov, Remzi Rustemovych, b. 1985]

Rayim Aivazov

344022, Россия, Ростов-на-Дону, ул. Максима Горького, 219 СИЗО-1.

Айвазову, Раиму Халиловичу, г.р. 1994

 [In English:  344022 Russian Federation, Rostov on the Don, 219 Maxim Gorky St, SIZO-1

Aivazov, Rayim Khalilovych, b. 1994 ]

Farkhod Bazarov

344064, Россия, Ростов-на-Дону,  ул. Тоннельная, 4, СИЗО-5

Базарову, Фарходу Эгамбердиевичу , г.р. 1986

344064, Russia, Rostov on the Don, 4 Tonnelnaya St., SIZO-5

Bazarov, Farkhod Egamberdievych, b. 1986

Riza Izetov

344022, Россия, Ростов-на-Дону, ул. Максима Горького, 219 СИЗО-1.

Изетову, Риза Мустафаевичу , г.р. 1979

 [In English:  344022 Russian Federation, Rostov on the Don, 219 Maxim Gorky St, SIZO-1

Izetov, Riza Mustafayevych, b. 1979 ]

Shaban Umerov

344022, Россия, Ростов-на-Дону, ул. Максима Горького, 219 СИЗО-1.

Умерову, Шабану Изетовичу, г.р. 1969

 [In English:  344022 Russian Federation, Rostov on the Don, 219 Maxim Gorky St, SIZO-1

Umerov, Shaban Izetovych, b. 1969 ]

Details about all 25 civic journalists and activists can be found here.

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