April 1, 2021

First Russia came for the journalists, and now it’s hiding their trials


A contemporary version of Marcin Niemöller’s famous words about the Nazis was seen recently at a protest. The placard read: “First they came for the journalists. We don’t know what happened after that.” In occupied Crimea, Russia has not been able to totally conceal its human rights violations, but it is undoubtedly trying, including by imprisoning civic journalists and activists. It has also stepped-up menacing ‘warnings,’ as well as administrative prosecutions for speaking out in defense of political prisoners. Since some of those now facing 20-year sentences had previously also been subjected to such harassment, the message is clear.

Russia essentially crushed all independent media within the first year or so of its occupation. This, and the mounting repression, especially against Crimean Tatars, led to the emergence of the civic initiative Crimean Solidarity in 2016. After the arrest early in 2016 of human rights activist Emir-Usein Kuku and five other men, and the abduction and disappearance of civic activist Ervin Ibragimov, there could be few illusions about the dangers any of the civic journalists and activists faced.

There had already been several arrests, including of Crimean Solidarity Coordinator and journalist Server Mustafayev, when on March 27, 2019, Russia carried out its most brazen offensive to date. Armed and often masked enforcement officers burst into a huge number of homes early in the morning and carried out “searches.” These were essentially only for “prohibited literature,” though reports surfaced that in several of the homes searched the FSB planted books that they then claimed to have “found.” Tacit confirmation that the FSB had a lot to hide was seen in the fact that not one of the lawyers who arrived to represent the men was allowed to be present, in breach of the men’s rights.

The targeting of men who had spoken out against repression was too overt and the arrests elicited international condemnation. Human Rights Watch called them “an unprecedented move to intensify pressure on a group largely critical of Russia’s occupation of the Crimean Peninsula” and stated unequivocally that attempts “to portray politically active Crimean Tatars as terrorists” is aimed at silencing them. There was similar criticism from the U.S. State Department, the EU, Freedom House and Civil Rights Defenders. The Memorial Human Rights Center was swift to declare all the men political prisoners and the group denounced the attempt “to crush the Crimean Tatar human rights movement.”

Of the men arrested, four are civic journalists: Osman Arifmemetov, Remzi Bekirov, Rustem Sheikhaliev and Ruslan Suleymanov. Mr. Bekirov had also recently become an accredited correspondent for Grani.ru, one of the only publications in Russia that writes openly about political persecution in occupied Crimea.

All of the men are charged only with “involvement” in the Hizb ut-Tahrir movement, a peaceful Muslim party which is legal in Ukraine and which is not known to have carried out acts of terrorism anywhere in the world. Russia has never provided any grounds for its highly secretive 2003 Supreme Court ruling that declared Hizb ut-Tahrir a “terrorist” organization, yet this inexplicable ruling is now being used as justification for huge sentences on supposed “terrorism charges.” Some of the men are facing the more serious charge of “organizing” a Hizb ut-Tahrir group (Article 205.5, section 1 of Russia’s criminal code). There is no proof that such a group even existed, yet the men face sentences of around 20 years or even life imprisonment. The other 20 activists and journalists are charged under Article 205.5, section 2 of “involvement,” with this still carrying a potential sentence of 10-20 years. In at least one of the cases, that of Rayim Aivazov, the FSB recently changed the charge to the more serious Article 205.5, section 1 – just as they threatened to do when he retracted a “confession” that they had extracted from him through torture.

The aggressor state, which invaded and annexed Crimea, is also charging all 25 Ukrainian citizens with “planning a violent seizure of power and change in Russia’s constitutional order” (Article 278). Here too, there are no grounds for the charges.
The “evidence” in the case includes the supposed testimony of secret witnesses whose claims cannot be verified, taped conversations about religion, etc., and “assessments” of such conversations by FSB-loyal “experts” who can claim that a word, common in Crimean Tatar, is “proof” of the charges against the men.

Russia reacted to international condemnation in March 2019 by initially hiding the men, with the first 23 swiftly taken to Russia for some time.

It was learned in September 2020 that the men were to be split up for five absolutely identical “trials.” There has been at least one trial of 19 political prisoners in Russia and it seems likely that the logistical difficulties were not the only reason that the trials were split up. Lawyer Emil Kurbedinov recently suggested that both the FSB and the courts get “better statistics” out of such clones. They can claim to have concluded five “terrorism” cases and not just one, albeit with many defendants.

The other aim is doubtless to deflect attention from this persecution of Crimean Tatar civic journalists and activists and from each individual trial. After the first hearings in just some of the cases, it is evident that it will be difficult to follow each group and near impossible to report on each as these are effectively “clones.” Lawyer Alexei Ladin earlier spoke of how the court proceedings would be extremely difficult. He noted that it would be unclear what kind of status the defendants in one case would have in the “trial” of the other men. Since all five “trials” are based on the same flawed “expert assessments” and the same “secret witnesses,” discrepancies are inevitable.

This is, in short, a further violation of the men’s right to a fair trial. The first hearing last week took place with all of the defendants being removed from their own “trial.” Farkhod Bazarov was expelled after he spoke in his native Crimean Tatar language, after which Rayim Aivazov, Remzi Bekirov, Riza Izetov and Shaban Umerov also spoke in Crimean Tatar to show their solidarity and were thrown out. During the first hearing in the trial of journalists Osman Arifmemetov, Rustem Sheikhaliev and Ruslan Suleymanov, and activists Enver Ametov and Yashar Muyedinov, the men were not thrown out for speaking Crimean Tatar; they were merely ignored, thus infringing upon their right to an interpreter.

As lawyer Aider Azamatov put it, “you can’t speak of the observance of any norms of criminal procedure and of human rights. Here they violate everything that can be violated.”