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Russia revokes sole acquittal of Crimean Tatar civic journalist and political prisoner
A Russian appeal court has revoked the sole acquittal of a Crimean political prisoner and upheld horrific sentences against seven other Crimean Tatar civic journalists and activists, including Amnesty International prisoner of conscience Server Mustafayev. The ‘case’ against civic journalist / photographer Ernes Ametov has been sent for re-trial, with the move on 14 March confirming fears from the outset that this single acquittal in eight years of Russian repression was a stunt, aimed at pretending that the ’trials’ were more than a mere rubber-stamping of predetermined sentences.
The eight Crimean Tatars were arrested in October 2017 and May 2018 in Russia’s first major offensive against the human rights initiative Crimean Solidarity, and the civic journalists and activists who ensure that the world hears about Russia’s repression in occupied Crimea. It was the arrest on 21 May 2018 of Crimean Solidarity Coordinator Server Mustafayev (together with Edem Smailov) that provoked the most international condemnation. In fact, however, Russia had already targeted four civic journalists: Ernes Ametov; Marlen (Suleiman) Asanov; Timur Ibragimov and Seiran Saliyev, as well as civic activists Memet Belyalov and Server Zekiryaev.
Not one of the men was accused of any recognizable crime yet seven of the men were sentenced, on 16 September 2020, to terms of imprisonment from 13 to 19 years. These ‘trials’ have long been part of the conveyor belt of repression that Russian brought to Crimea, and it was essentially only the acquittal and release in court of Ametov that came as any surprise.
The original sentences, handed down by presiding judge Rizvan Zubairov, together with Roman Saprunov; and Maxim Nikitin from the Southern District Military Court in Rostov (Russia)) were, of course, appealed by the men themselves. It turned out, however, that prosecutor Yevgeny Kolpikov, who had demanded a 17.5 year sentence against Ametov, had lodged an appeal against the acquittal.
There were 45 hearings on the appeals at the Military Court of Appeal in Vlasikha (Moscow region). One wonders what the ‘judges’ sat and thought about during these hearings, as they clearly paid no attention to the huge amount of evidence presented both by the political prisoners themselves, and by their lawyers, of the flawed nature of the charges, of the alleged ‘expert assessments’ and other supposed proof in the case.
Only one sentence, that against Saliyev, was reduced by a year, with six others upheld in full. The worst was, however, still to come, with the court revoking the acquittal of Ametov and sending the charges against him back for a new ‘trial’.
The following sentences have thus come into force:
Crimean Solidarity civic journalist Marlen Asanov 19 years
Crimean Solidarity activist Memet Belyalov 18 years & 18 months restriction of liberty
Crimean Solidarity civic journalist Timur Ibragimov 17 years & 18 months restriction of liberty
Crimean Solidarity Coordinator and journalist Server Mustafayev 14 years &1 year restriction of liberty
Crimean Solidarity civic journalist Seiran Saliyev 15 years &1 year restriction of liberty
Edem Smailov (the leader of a religious community) 13 years & 1 year restriction of liberty
Crimean Solidarity volunteer Server Zekiryaev 13 years
In all of the above cases, the sentences are for maximum security prison colonies, although not one of the men was even accused of an actual crime. They are also sentences that Russia, as an occupying state, is imposing in violation of international law (the Fourth Geneva Convention), as well as the European Court of Human Rights, as all the men are imprisoned thousands of kilometres from their families and home.
The charges against all of the men were of ‘involvement’ in a peaceful organization - Hizb ut-Tahrir – which is legal in Ukraine and which is not known to have committed any acts of terrorism or violence anywhere in the world. Russia’s Supreme Court ruling in February 2003 which labelled Hizb ut-Tahrir ‘terrorist’ was passed in secret, and was probably politically motivated (enabling Russia to forcibly return refugees back to Uzbekistan where they faced religious persecution). Russia has been illegally using these charges against Ukrainian Muslims, most of them Crimean Tatars, since 2015, with the charges now systematically used as a weapon against civic journalists and activists.
Initially, only Marlen Asanov was charged with the more serious ‘organizer’ role under Article 205.5 § 1 of Russia’s criminal code, however in February 2019, the same charge was also brought against Memet Belyalov and Timur Ibragimov. Seiran Saliyev; Ernes Ametov; Server Mustafayev; Edem Smailov and Server Zekiryaev were charged with ‘involvement in such an alleged ‘group’ (Article 205.5 § 2). All eight men were also charged (under Article 278) with ‘planning to violently seize power’. This has also become standard in occupied Crimea, although not one of the armed searches of the men’s homes has ever found any weapons or similar.
These prosecutions are particularly surreal and cynical in that men can be convicted on ‘terrorism charges’ and sentenced to terms of imprisonment far higher than those passed on murderers purely on charges of ‘involvement’ in a peaceful religious and political organization.
The cynicism does not, however, stop there, as no actual proof of involvement is especially required. The charges were based on illicitly taped conversations in a mosque. There was not one mention during these conversations of Hizb ut-Tahrir, however the FSB used its own supposed ‘experts’ willing to claim that the subject matter, particular words, etc. gave grounds for concluding that the men were at a ‘conspiratorial meeting’ and were members of Hizb ut-Tahrir . None of the three ‘experts’ Yulia Fomina; Yelena Khazimulina and Timur Zakhirovich Urazumetov possessed the professional competence to provide such assessments. In the case of the two ‘linguists’, Fomina and Khazimulina, this was explained in a comprehensive report and then to the court by forensic linguist, Yelena Novozhilova.
This suspect ‘evidence’ was backed by the supposed testimony of two ‘secret’ or anonymous witnesses. Russia essentially bases all its political trials of Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians on such alleged witnesses, with this strongly criticized in the 2021 UN Secretary General’s Report on the Human Rights Situation “in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, Ukraine”. Although the prosecutor is invariably backed by the court in Rostov in maintaining secrecy and blocking any questions that probe the worth of their ‘testimony’, the identity of both men is, in fact, known. They are Narzulayev Salakhudin, an Uzbek living in occupied Crimea without the proper documents and Konstantin Tumarevich, a fugitive from justice in his native Latvia. In both cases, it was clear that the FSB had levers to use to ‘persuade’ the men to cooperate with them, and they are believed to have been used as such anonymous ‘witnesses’ in all cases involving Crimean Tatars from Bakhchysarai.
All of the men have been recognized as political prisoners by the Memorial Human Rights Centre and Amnesty International has also run urgent appeals on behalf of Server Mustafayev whom it has declared an AI prisoner of conscience.
The men’s release has been demanded on many occasions by, among others, the US Mission to the OSCE; the US State Department; the EU; Human Rights Watch and Frontline Defenders. In its statement following the sentences in September 2020, HRW wrote that the verdict “once again, shows just how determined Russian authorities are to make Crimean Tatar activists – and their families – pay the price and how they will subvert the law and courts to do so.”