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New armed terror against independent religious community in Russian-occupied Crimea

27.11.2023   
Halya Coynash
The Russian occupation authorities have jailed three Crimean Tatars linked with the 'Alushta' religious community which has long been under attack for its religious independence

From left Yusuf Ashirov, Villen Useinov, Zinur Appazov Photos posted by Crimean Solidarity

From left Yusuf Ashirov, Villen Useinov, Zinur Appazov Photos posted by Crimean Solidarity

Three Crimean Tatars, including the Imam of the ‘Alushta’ Muslim Community, were jailed on 23 November after armed searches of the men’s homes.  The charges in each case were absurd, with one of the men jailed for ten days over a video posted on the social network VKontakte in 2013, before Russia’s invasion of Crimea.  This is the latest of many attacks under Russian occupation on the independent  ‘Alushta’ Muslim Community.

Armed men, most of them in masks, burst into the homes of Imam Yusuf Ashirov; Zinur Appazov and Vilen Useinov (b. 1981) 6 and 7 a.m. on 23 November, terrifying children and turning everything upside down.   All three men were then taken by officials from Russia’s so-called ‘centre for countering extremism’ and, in the afternoon and early evening were brought, one at a time, to the occupation ‘Alushta municipal court’. 

As has been the illegal practice in Crimea since Russia’s invasion, lawyers were only allowed to see those detained after the ‘searches’.  The ‘court hearings’, moreover, were effectively held behind closed doors, with neither families, nor members of the public, allowed to be present.  Those waiting outside were also threatened with prosecution (under administrative charges) if they didn’t disperse.

Villen Useinov was sentenced to ten days’ imprisonment [‘administrative arrest’] over a post on his VKontakte page in 2013.  This was a photo of a white flag with the symbol of faith of Islam written in black letters in Arabic [There is only one God – Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger).  Crimean Solidarity reports that the ‘Centre’ claimed that this was demonstration of a ‘prohibited symbol’, although the charge was under Article 20.3 § 1 of Russia’s administrative code. ‘Judge’ Denis Vladimirovich Kireyev clearly saw no problem with jailing a person, under Russian legislation, over a social media post which was in no way illegal under Ukrainian law which even Russia cannot dispute was in force ten years ago.

Zinur Appazov was jailed for five days over a video posted on VKontakte in 2016 – of an appeal to the brutal leader of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, saying “Your life has been valued at two kopecks’, with the claim made by the ‘Centre’ being that in the video a man can be seen against the background of a flag of the Congress of Peoples of Ichkeria and Dagestan which Russia’s supreme court declared ‘terrorist’ in a suspiciously secretive ruling from 14 February 2003.  The charge was under the same article of Russia’s administrative code, with the sentence here too passed by Kireyev.

Kireyev was also responsible for jailing Imam Yusuf Ashirov for two days on an even more absurd chard, under Article 20.1 (‘petty hooliganism’).  The ‘police’ claimed that when a protocol was being drawn up against him under Article 5.26 (infringing legislation on freedom of conscience and religious organizations), or so-called ‘illegal missionary activities’. Ashirov had sworn at the officer.  The charge is all the more idiotic as no protocol under Article 5.26 was, in fact, drawn up.

Ashirov’s lawyer Rustem Kyamilev explains that one of the officers had tried to get Ashirov to agree to speak in the mosque the following day in support of the Mufti of Crimea (who in 2014 chose collaboration with the Russian occupation regime). The officer had also told him that somebody else would be leading Friday prayers.  Ashirov had refused to collaborate in this way, hence the charge of supposed ‘petty hooliganism’.

Renowned human rights defender and Crimean Solidarity Coordinator Lutfiye Zudiyeva is in no doubt that it was not only the Crimean police and Centre against ‘extremism’ who were behind this organized ‘operation’.  She points out that “The community has over many years faced systematic attacks aimed at getting the Yukary Dzhami Mosque under the total control of the [Mufti’s] Spiritual Directorate of Muslims and the security service – against the wishes of the mosque’s worshippers.  Religious monopoly is being imposed through such arrests and pressure, but it can hardly be called gaining people’s hearts. Yusuf Ashirov has for many years been holding religious ceremonies in the city and his formal removal from the position of Imam through deals arranged together with the security service cannot remove people’s trust in him, and will certainly not add respect to the new person installed.”

Yusuf Ashirov was prosecuted back in April 2021 for holding prayers in the Yukary Dzhami Mosque with the Russian occupation authorities claiming that this constituted ‘illegal missionary activities’.  On that occasion, he was fined 5 thousand roubles.  Two prosecutions had followed from the effective raid on the mosque in Alushta on 30 March 2021, with it clear that the community was viewed as ‘too independent’.

The second charge was against the entire ‘Alushta’ religious community because of ‘unlabelled literature with full official name’ in the Yukary Dzhami Mosque “in the absence of written consent from the managerial body of the said religious association”.  It seemed clear that such ‘written consent’ was claimed to be required from the Mutfiate. As reported, the Mufti, Emirali Ablayev, wants all religious communities to be fully subordinate to the Muftiate and, at least in this case, also had a material interest, namely control over the 19th Century Yukary Dzhami Mosquem in the very centre of Alushta which had legally been in the hands of the ‘Alushta’ community since 1994.  In 2017, the occupation regime revoked the community’s ownership with Russian-controlled or Russian courts, right up to the Supreme Court upholding this illegal ruling.

It is widely believed that Ablayev and his people have collaborated with the FSB in the latter’s persecution of Crimean Muslims on fabricated ‘terrorism’ charges.  The offensive against the ‘Alushta’ community has not been confined to administrative charges alone.  In June 2019, the head of the community, Lenur Khalilov was arrested, together with another active member of the community, Ruslan Mesutov and two other Crimean Tatars (Ruslan Nagayev and Eldar Kantimirov).  All received huge sentences, with the two members of the ‘Alushta’ community received the harshest 18-year sentences.  Another member of the community, Muslim Aliev, had earlier been sentenced on identical charges to 19 years.  None of the men was accused of any actual crime and all are recognized political prisoners. 

See: Savage sentences in Russia’s religious persecution and plunder in occupied Crimea

Crimean Tatar prisoner of conscience sentenced to 19 years for religious 'dissidence' faces new torment in Russian prison

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