February 26 is marked in Ukraine as the Day of Crimean Resistance to Russian Aggression. It was on this day in 2014 that Russia had hoped to achieve a coup in Crimea, presenting its annexation to the world as a vote in Crimea’s Parliament to change the peninsula’s status. The elaborate ploy failed, largely thanks to the Mejlis, or self-governing body, of the Crimean Tatar people and the huge demonstration that they called in the square in Symferopol outside Crimea’s Parliament.
The failure of this plan prompted Moscow to order the deployment of Russian soldiers early the next morning. Despite little will from the international community to take real measures against Russia, the involvement of Russian military made sanctions and international refusal to recognize the land-grab inevitable.
It is impossible to overstate the vital role that Crimean Tatars played in upholding Ukraine’s territorial integrity on that day, and since. It is to a large extent because of this firm stand that they have suffered by far the most from Russian occupation, and it is deeply galling that Ukraine’s leaders are now placing the existence of Crimean Tatar TV ATR, a vital source of information for all Ukrainians, in jeopardy.
In the first few weeks after Russia’s invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his people attempted to win the support of Crimean Tatar leaders Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov, and of the Mejlis. When this failed, the Kremlin turned swiftly to repression. Both Mr. Dzhemilev and Mr. Chubarov were soon banned from their homeland; then, repressive measures began against the Mejlis, resulting in its ban, and the arrest and long imprisonment of the Mejlis’s deputy leader, Akhtem Chiygoz.
The prosecution of Mr. Chiygoz and five other Crimean Tatars was both overtly racist and astoundingly lawless. All faced trumped-up charges related to the demonstration on February 26, 2014, although this had quite unequivocally taken place on Ukrainian territory, under Ukrainian law.
Almost all victims of the abductions and/or enforced disappearances that Russia brought to occupied Crimea have been Crimean Tatars. While the first victim – 39-year-old peaceful protester Reshat Ametov – was seized by the armed paramilitaries under Russian control, not Russian soldiers, Russia has never made any real attempt to prosecute those guilty of abducting him and savagely torturing him to death. There are strong grounds for believing that other abductions, including that of Crimean Tatar activist Ervin Ibragimov, were carried out by Russian-controlled enforcement bodies.
Russia has systematically persecuted those Ukrainians whom it cannot drive out of their native Crimea, with the first political prisoners – Mykola Shyptur, Oleh Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko and two other opponents of annexation – appearing in the first months after its invasion.
By now, there are close to 90 known political prisoners held in occupied Crimea, or Russia, with a majority of them being Crimean Tatars. An ever-increasing number of Crimean Tatar civic activists and journalists are imprisoned for their involvement in the civic initiative Crimean Solidarity, which helps political prisoners and their families, and provides vital information about human rights violations in Crimea where Russia has crushed any independent media.
There was wide publicity on September 7, 2019, when Russia handed over, as part of an exchange of prisoners, some of the most prominent Ukrainian political prisoners, including Mr. Sentsov, Volodymyr Balukh and journalist Roman Sushchenko. Among the men released, there was only one Crimean Tatar hostage – Edem Bekirov, whose life was in danger and who lives in mainland Ukraine. (He was seized by the FSB while visiting his elderly mother in Crimea.) This is despite the fact that over 60 of the political prisoners are Crimean Tatars.
Even if, as Ukraine’s leaders have promised, the next release is of at least some of these political prisoners, Russia has just arrested Nariman Nezhmudinov on fabricated charges, and he is just one of five hostages, including a woman in her sixties, seized since September 2019.
If Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian political prisoners are to be released, Ukrainians in mainland Ukraine and people in other countries need to become their voice. We all know it’s possible, since that is precisely what so many people all around the world did for Mr. Sentsov. This can be through letter-writing campaigns; flash mobs; lobbying government representatives; and/or contacting national and international rights NGOs, asking them to issue statements or urgent actions in a political prisoner’s defense.
Any information, any acts of solidarity that attract media attention are valuable and increase awareness of the men’s plight and of Russia’s ongoing violations in illegally occupied Ukrainian Crimea.
It is very easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the repression, but try “adopting” one or two of the prisoners, or, perhaps, focusing on a particular case.
Writing letters is always important – both in telling the prisoners that they are not forgotten and in showing Moscow that their behavior (and their treatment of the political prisoner) is under scrutiny.
Russia’s use of conveyor-belt repression, especially against Crimean Tatar activists, makes the task easier than one might think. Sixty-five men, at least half of them civic activists/journalists are facing the same “terrorism” charges, based solely on totally unproven claims that they are involved in the peaceful Hizb ut-Tahrir party that is legal in Ukraine and has never committed acts of terrorism or violence. Russia is the only country in the world to have declared Hizb ut-Tahrir “terrorist,” and it is using the arrests to crush Crimean Tatar civic activists and to instill hatred against Crimean Tatars and all Ukrainians in occupied Crimea.
Of the most immediate concern is Dzhemil Gafarov, whose life is in danger. The 58-year-old Mr. Gafarov is one of the oldest of the 24 Crimean Tatar civic activists and journalists arrested on March 27, 2019. He is gravely ill, with a serious kidney disease that in 2017 caused him to have a heart attack and that urgently needs proper treatment. Russia’s mass operation that day and its use of flawed “terrorism” charges were widely condemned as an attack on civic activists, and Mr. Gafarov, together with the others, has long been recognized by the Memorial Human Rights Center as a political prisoner.
In Mr. Gafarov’s case, Russia is not just violating international law. According to Russia’s own legislation, his state of health should preclude his imprisonment, yet his detention keeps being extended. His family and lawyer have needed to go to court merely to get him seen by a doctor. Mr. Gafarov is very close to total kidney collapse and could die unless released.
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The learn more about the Crimean Tatars and others held in occupied Crimea or Russia, go to http://khpg.org/en/index.php?id=1582669750 for links to information on individual cases.