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Savage sentences in Russia’s religious persecution and plunder in occupied Crimea
A Russian court of appeal has upheld sentences of up to 18 years against four Crimean Tatars, with the persecution of two of the men almost certainly connected with Russia’s attack on an independent religious community in occupied Alushta and plunder of their mosque. The ‘appeal hearing’ was pure farce, with the Russian prosecutor having clearly not even bothered to read the file material and making entirely false allegations about the four men.
Human rights lawyer Emil Kurbedinov was present at the Military Court of Appeal in Vlasikha (Moscow region). He notes that the prosecutor was so evidently unfamiliar with the case and charges that he claimed that the ‘anonymous witnesses’ on whose ‘testimony’ the charges were based had been rightly kept secret as the defendants were “murderers and terrorists” who had made attempts on the lives of others. This was evident nonsense.
The four recognized political prisoners had all wished, as was their right, to make their final address to the court in their native Crimean Tatar language. The ‘judges’ had, however, constantly interrupted them and then claimed to assume that the men did not wish to speak.
“The three military judges predictably upheld sentences which can only be described as savage against our political prisoners who, living for many years in Crimea, brought only good to society, struggled for the rights of the mosque which, since the arrival of Russia, there have been attempts to take from them,” Kurbedinov comments.
It was, indeed, noticeable that the two men who received 18-year sentences were those linked to the ‘Alushta’ religious community, which has come under attack since Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. Lenur Khalilov (b. 1967) is the head of ‘Alushta’; while Ruslan Mesutov (b. 1965) was also an active member of the community. Ruslan Nagayev, (b. 1964) who is the informal Imam of a mosque in the village of Malorechenske, was sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment. The youngest of the men, 41-year-old Eldar Kantimirov (b. 1980) had faced various forms of administration prosecution and harassment for his civic activism in support of political prisoners. He refused to be intimidated and was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment.
All of the sentences are in the worst of Russian penal institutions – the first two years in a prison, the very worst, and then in harsh-regime prison colonies, which are all thousands of kilometres from the men’s homes and families in Crimea.
The sentences were passed on 16 August 2021 by presiding judge Roman Viktorovich Saprunov, together with Maxim Mikhailovich Nikitin and Rizvan Abdullayevich Zubairov, after the ‘trial’ at the Southern District Military Court in Rostov (Russia). All of these individuals, as well as the court, have been implicated in other such prosecutions of Crimean Muslims. The same is true of the Russian prosecutors (Yevgeny Kolpikov and Zaurbek Savoyev).
The flawed charges, fabricated ‘evidence’ and prosecution-slanted ‘court proceedings’ are all largely identical in such ‘trials’, however the judges and prosecutor in this case also ignored evidence indicating that the persecution of Khalilov and Mesutov was linked to a banal attempt to steal the religious community’s mosque. The men’s arrest in June 2019 came two weeks before the community’s legal challenge against the occupation regime’s attempt to seize the 19th century Yukhary-Dzhami Mosque which the community has legally occupied since 1994.
The Crimean Mufiate has played a particularly shameful part in this. The Muftiate decided to collaborate with the Russian occupiers in 2014, with Russia in return helping it to fight independent religious communities and, in this case, to gain control of a coveted mosque.
The men were accused only of unproven involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir , a peaceful transnational Muslim organization which is legal in Ukraine. Russia became the first country in the world (joined in 2016 by Uzbekistan) to declare Hizb ut-Tahrir ‘terrorist in a 2003 Supreme Court ruling passed behind closed doors. with neither Hizb ut-Tahrir members, nor human rights NGOs given a chance to make submissions. No adequate explanation has ever been provided for labelling as ‘terrorist’ an organization which is not known to have committed, or even threatened, acts of terrorism or violence in Russia or anywhere else in the world.
Lenur Khalilov and Ruslan Mesutov were charged with the more serious ‘organizer’ role under Article 205.5 § 1 of Russia’s criminal code; Eldar Kantimirov and Ruslan Nagayev with ‘involvement in such an alleged ‘group’ (Article 205.5 § 2). All four men were also charged, under Article 278, with ‘planning to violently seize power’. The prosecution explained this truly surreal charge by claiming that the four men, as supposed members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, were planning a state coup via ‘“the total Islamization of the population”.
The four Crimean Tatars were accused of ‘terrorism’, although none was charged with any terrorist offence or plan. The armed searches of the men’s homes on 10 June 2019 found no weapons nor anything else that would justify the charges. In fact, during all of these armed operations, the FSB and other enforcement officers really only look for ‘prohibited literature’, and often plant the latter themselves, and then pretend to find them.
Other than that, there were illicitly taped conversations on religious subjects where the only person whose voice could be properly heard was the person infiltrated by the FSB who appears in the case as one of two ‘anonymous witnesses’. As always, these scarcely audible conversations were sent to certain FSB-loyal ‘experts’ who do what they are commissioned to do and claim that some word or phrase ‘proves’ a person’s involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir.
There were two anonymous witnesses: one whose identity is unknown and the person who was clearly meeting with the men on commission from the FSB (Enver Khalilov). In all of these ‘trials’, such anonymous witnesses are essentially the only ‘witnesses’ who testify against defendants. Although there are no valid grounds for concealing such alleged ‘witnesses’ identity, the presiding judge invariably rejects applications for their identity to be revealed, and generally blocks questions that expose the fact that their testimony is false. Russia has already lost one case at the European Court of Human Rights over a sentence based solely on such testimony that cannot be verified, and a report from the UN Secretary General was critical of Russia’s use of such methods.
It should be stressed that any such flawed ‘evidence’ is only of the men’s alleged ‘involvement’ in a peaceful organization which is legal in Ukraine. Russia is, of course, also in breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention which expressly prohibits it from applying its legislation on occupied territory.