October 27, 2017

Crimean Tatar leaders are freed


Crimean Tatar leaders Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov, who were sentenced to prison by Russian courts on the occupied peninsula in September, were released from custody on October 25 and arrived in Turkey, Ukrainian officials, legislators and lawyers said.

Ukraine’s First Deputy Minister of Information Policy Emine Dzheppar told RFE/RL about their release. Mustafa Dzhemilev, the veteran Crimean Tatar leader who is now a Ukrainian lawmaker, also told RFE/RL that the two men had been freed from Russian custody in Crimea and were on their way to Turkey. They were expected to arrive in Kyiv on October 27.

“Two more hostages – two political prisoners – have obtained freedom,” Nikolai Polozov, a lawyer for Mr. Chiygoz, said on Facebook.

Rights groups and Western governments have condemned the convictions, calling their trials part of a campaign of pressure and abuse conducted by Russia since it occupied and seized control of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Kremlin critics say that Russia has targeted Crimean Tatars and others who opposed Moscow’s takeover of the Black Sea peninsula, which followed the ouster of Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych by throngs of protesters in Kyiv.

Mr. Chiygoz was convicted of organizing an illegal demonstration and sentenced to eight years in prison on September 11 after what Amnesty International called a “sham trial.”

Mr. Umerov was convicted of separatism on September 27 after a trial that Human Rights Watch called “ruthless retaliation” for his opposition to Moscow’s takeover of the peninsula. He was sentenced to two years in a type of penitentiary called a colony settlement.

Mr. Polozov told RFE/RL that all charges against Messrs. Chiygoz and Umerov have been dropped.

“Their release became possible thanks to the support of those who are not indifferent to political prisoners, who are not indifferent to Crimean Tatars,” Mr. Polozov said. He said the releases were the result of “huge judicial, diplomatic and political work” by Mr. Dzhemilev, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and others.

“Neither Akhtem Chiygoz nor Ilmi Umerov asked for clemency or amnesty,” Mr. Polozov said. “They are heroes of the Crimean Tatar people – Ukrainian political prisoners for whom moral principles and conscience are more important than their own liberty. They are not people one can force to go on bended knee and ask for mercy from the Russian state.”

In a Facebook post, Mr. Poroshenko thanked the president of Turkey for his role in the release of Messrs. Chiygoz and Umerov, which came within weeks after President Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ankara in late September and with President Poroshenko in Kyiv on October 9.

At a joint news conference with Mr. Poroshenko during his visit to Kyiv, Mr. Erdogan had stressed that Turkey considers Crimea part of Ukraine and will continue to pay close attention to the plight of the Crimean Tatars, a Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim minority whose members were largely opposed to the Russian takeover.

Messrs. Umerov and Chiygoz are deputy chairmen of the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar self-governing body, which Russian authorities deemed extremist and outlawed in what rights groups and Western governments said was part of a persistent campaign of oppression targeting Crimean Tatars and other citizens who opposed Moscow’s takeover.

Mr. Umerov, who suffers from diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, was confined to a psychiatric hospital in August 2016, a decision condemned by Human Rights Watch as “an egregious violation of his rights.”

In March, the European Parliament called on Russia to free more than 30 Ukrainian citizens it said were in prison or other conditions of restricted freedom in Russia, Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine that are controlled by Russia-backed separatists. Most of them remain in custody.

In his Facebook post, Mr. Poroshenko said he would seek the release of all Ukrainians held by Russia. “This issue will remain as one of the urgent ones in my talks with the world’s leaders,” he said, vowing to continue what he called “the joint fight for liberation of all Ukrainian citizens and their return home.”

With reporting by Merhat Sharipzhan.

Copyright 2017, RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington DC 20036; www.rferl.org (for the complete text see https://www.rferl.org/a/ukraine-crimea-tatar-leaders-chiygoz-umerov-released/28815211.html).