Memet Belialov, a Crimean Tatar sentenced to 18 years of imprisonment by Russia for alleged terrorism with no evidence, holds a sign from the bench of the accused in the glass box. Photo: Crimean Solidarity
Seven years ago, Russian Special Operations Forces with no badges yet equipped with Russian weapons took over a part of Ukrainian sovereign territory — the Crimean peninsula. International organizations recognized the fact of occupation and condemned Russia’s actions.
In the years that followed, Russian occupation authorities in Crimea established a highly repressive regime. Punitive measures fall upon Crimean Tatars, the Peninsula’s indigenous people professing Islam who put up the primary resistance against Russian occupation back in 2014, ethnic Ukrainians, activists, journalists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other groups who either disagree with the occupation or show any form of dissent.
They suffer from continuous raids on their homes, offices, and places of worship. Their leaders are expelled from Crimea, their media agencies are shut down, and their peaceful organizations are outlawed. Often, imprisonment is the price of peaceful disagreement.
“In Russia, there is no freedom of speech, only Putin’s propaganda. Those who disagree with the government or have a dissenting opinion face administrative and criminal cases which enforcement officers frame through fabricated evidence plucked from the air. And government-controlled courts rubber-stamp innumerable wrongful verdicts. It is up to prosecutors’ taste and imagination what [alleged] charges to press, be it extremism or calls for riots. That is why independent journalists and bloggers speaking up their minds and criticizing the government are constantly at risk of being fined or imprisoned. Persecution of opponents is intrinsic to Russian internal policy, and Crimea is no exception,” Crimean journalist Oleksiy Nazimov told in an interview with Krym.Realii, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Crimean desk launched after Russian occupation.
Indeed, Russia’s neo-Soviet prosecution machine is equipped with a number of tools to incarcerate innocent people on trumped-up charges.
- On the one hand, as the bulk of Russia’s repressions consist of framing the Crimean Tatars, who are ethnic Muslims, as Islamic terrorists, they galvanize support of the non-Muslim population for the occupation authorities and smear the main peaceful resistance to the occupation as terrorist;
- On the other hand, it stifles all other opponents of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and sends them a clear-cut message that activism will not be tolerated.
Euromaidan Press has rounded up which legal tools are abused by Russian kangaroo courts to crack down on activists in Crimea.
1. Forged membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir and planted evidence
According to the Russian Memorial Human Rights Center, the 2003 Supreme Court of Russia decision declaring Hizb ut-Tahrir a terrorist organization had no credible justification, as there was no proof of its members ever committing terrorism. Being intolerant to dissenting religious views, Russia has continuously used Hizb ut-Tahrir allegations as a tool to persecute innocent people professing Islam.
Since the occupation, Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians of Muslim faith have come into the crosshairs of the occupation authorities, too. As of 26 March 2021, at least 322 people have been arrested for alleged affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir, 70 of whom were sentenced to 10-15 years of imprisonment and 81 to over 15 years, Memorial states. Memorial deems persons accused of affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir political prisoners, because membership in the organization alone, without committing illegal acts, serves as a sufficient condition for lengthy terms of imprisonment. Moreover, Russia tramples upon international law, namely the Geneva Conventions, when applying its laws on the occupied territory of Crimea, where Hizb ut-Tahrir is legal under Ukrainian law.
As stated in the “Fighting Terrorism or Terrorizing Activism?” report issued by a joint effort of human rights organizations, Russia continuously exploits the pretence of Hizb ut-Tahrir allegations to prosecute Crimean activists and unreasonably label them as terrorists or extremists. Charges are usually grounded on accusations of conducting meetings, discussing religious texts, keeping “prohibited books”, as well as fabricated conversations and induced confessions. The said “prohibited books” being copies of identical Hizb ut-Tahrir literature are planted by the Russian security forces during nearly all raids conducted by security forces in Crimean Tatar households or workplaces.
According to the report, all planted books are quite similar — they are all-new and show no sign of exploitation. Conspicuously, all books are “detected” in doubtful circumstances. During one of the raids, a book was “discovered” in a muddy boiler cupboard behind a gas canister but showed no signs of dirt. In another house, a book was “detected” on a kitchen shelf, but was neither greasy nor smelly. It raises concerns that in each and every case, neither witnesses nor residents were present in the discoveries of the prohibited literature. Even worse, one local noticed a police officer going inside the house on his own and afterwards inviting a group of security agents to search the house. Not surprisingly, they found three books in that house lying on a visible spot. According to the detainees, their relatives and neighbours, they have never previously seen these books.
In some cases, a part of books (actually possessed by the arrestees) found during the searches, such as various Islamic booklets and Quran Translations books, even if not prohibited by Russian legislation, still get confiscated and are presented as supporting evidence in Hizb ut-Tahrir allegations.
Witnesses affirm that security officers use excessive and unnecessary physical violence in detaining the accused, such as wrestling them to the ground, kicking them in the back, smashing them against a car bonnet, and punching them in the back of the head. The manner of searches is in general intentionally intrusive and intimidating.
Emine Ibriimova, a participant of Free Crimea civic movement of independent activists and bloggers, maintained that Russia exploits the topic of terrorism for its political purposes. She further noted:
“[A]ll “alleged terrorist attacks” and “terrorist cells” are featured along with Crimean Tatar names. The topics of terrorism and extremism have long ago become a handy tool for Russian government and security agencies to pursue their internal and foreign purposes. That is why, to no surprise, people who think critically no longer trust terrorism-related information voiced by Russian media agencies.”
As a consequence of such policy of tyranny from the side of occupation authorities, at least 30,000 Crimean Tatars have left Crimea, echoing Stalin’s deportations in 1944. The report refers to this phenomenon as “forcible displacement by the cumulative effect of discrimination, violence and/or fear of persecution.” The co-founder of Crimean Solidarity, a Crimean civic movement established on 9 April 2016 for the protection of political repressions victims, claims that systematic persecution of active Crimean Tatars is tantamount to “hybrid deportation,” an adverse surrounding forcing Crimean Tatars to flee the Peninsula.
2. Dubious expert assessments
A notorious case against eight de facto innocent Crimean Tatars activists for alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir membership, referred to as Second Bakhchysarai case, is a striking example of how the Russian judiciary engages its pocket experts to acquire concocted evidence against Crimeans.
In the Second Bakhchysarai case, a recording of conversations during three gatherings inside a mosque in Bakchysarai town was presented as the key proof to convict eight Crimean Tatar activists. It is worth mentioning that a Federal Security Service operative Nikolai Artykbaev organized discreet listening of the conversations without any legal pretext. This means such evidence cannot serve as grounds for initiating prejudicial inquiry, says Anton Naumliuk, an editor of Ukrainian media agency Graty. However, the recordings were presented as legitimate evidence.
As they showed, the defendants never pronounced “Hizb ut-Tahrir”, the name of the organization they allegedly belonged to. Thus, the procurator’s office based their line of accusation exclusively on the basis of a guess, because, as they believed, Hizb ut-Tahrir was not mentioned in the conversations due to secrecy reasons. The prosecutors wrongfully claimed that such a fact alone testified to affiliation of the Crimean Tatars with the Islamic party. Emil Kurbedinov, a lawyer of the defendants, commented on this evidence:
“By the order of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, experts conclude that these conversations in the mosque somehow testify to the defendants affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir, meaning they are terrorists. This is a pro forma accusation. Most defendants in this case are activists […], religious figures and people who helped others. They have not committed anything illegal but their terrorism accusations entail 15-20 years of imprisonment to the extent of life imprisonment.”
Nikolai Artykbaev as the chief procurator in this case was responsible for transcribing the recordings. However, with null knowledge of Arabic, he dropped many balls in performing this task, the accused said.
Some pocket “experts” from the Center of Linguistic Expertise of the Ufa Pedagogical University analysed the transcripts and presented their opinion that the accused belong to the Islamic party.
Yelena Novozhilova, an independent expert in the aforementioned and previous Hizb ut-Tahrir cases, carried out an independent analysis of the assessment performed by the Center. She found that these experts had very limited knowledge of Islam, and, hence, could not be deemed competent to issue an expert opinion in a criminal case. An expert in religious questions, Timur Urazmetov, was also recognised as unqualified. His opinion on the participation of the accused in Hizb ut-Tahrir was built merely on belief that Islam is a “silent” religion and is not characterized by manifestations or ceremonies.
According to Yelena Novozhilova, other flaws of the expert assessment conducted by the Center included distortion of the research object, replacements of parts of the speech of the accused with experts’ own expressions, independent collection of materials, non-use of the declared scientific methods, absence of analysis of the context of the conversations of the accused, absence of a clear-cut logical structure of the analysis, factual, logical, and operational mistakes, unfounded allegations with no grounds etc. To make the case worse, the expert assessment had the stamp of a different institution, which further calls into question its credibility.
Aleksei Ladin, a lawyer in the Second Bakhchysarai case, pointed out that prior to assessment the experts had labelled the accused as guilty and thus, dragged in conclusions by the head and ears instead of establishing facts. Experts also went beyond the object of investigation. Furthermore, they referred to non-verbal communication, namely gestures of the accused. As experts analysed audio materials, there was no way they could see the moves of the defendants and thus, just made up what the gestures might have been. Most importantly, the recordings did not reveal any enmity towards other nations or religions. Neither did they mention Hizb ut-Tahrir. As Ladin believes, the accused should have been given the benefit of the doubt and this expert assessment should have been deemed inadmissible evidence.
The prosecutor’s office provided no proof of planning or conducting terrorist activities. Based on planted prohibited literature “discovery” and the fundamentally flawed expert assessment on alleged conversations on politics and religion (obviously carried out under supervision of Russian security forces), Federal Security Service operative Artykbaev claimed the accused could potentially commit terrorism in the future, and this needed to the averted. To no surprise, the prosecutor’s arguments satisfied the court.
This is how seven innocent men were sentenced to 13-19 years of imprisonment only for nothing more than professing Islam.
3. Marionette witnesses
Another tool Russia persistently uses in the denial of the right of Crimeans to a fair trial is marionette witnesses. Oftentimes they are people who depend on Russian Federal Security Service, stay in Crimea illegally, or serve in Russian security agencies, claims Emil Kurbedinov, based on his experience as a lawyer in previous cases brought against Crimean activists. Put it another way, it is out of the question that secret witnesses speak the truth. The Second Bakchysarai case was no exception in this regard.
The prosecutors in the aforementioned case presented secret witness Ivanov. In reality, he is Konstantin Tumarevich, a Latvian who moved to Crimea and adopted Islam. He is believed to have made the said recordings of the accused conversations about Islam and politics in the mosque.
The defendants could easily recognise the personality of the secret witness, as Tumarevich had previously testified as a secret witness from the prosecutor’s side in a similar case against Crimean Tatars, also accused of affiliation with the Islamic party. The accused indicated that Tumarevich played ball with the Russian Federal Security Service. That’s actually not surprising, because in the past Tumarevich had a few brushes with the law and stayed in Russia without permit, Marlen Asanov, one of the defendants said.
Another “secret witness Bekirov” was also recognized by the defense as Salohiddin Nazrullaev, an Uzbek citizen. According to the accused, Salohiddin Nazrullaev struggled financially and had nationality issues. The two of the eight accused, Asanov and Smailov, tried to help give Salohiddin Nazrullaev a helping hand in his life circumstances. They further added that the witness was coerced to testify from the prosecutor’s side at risk of having his child taken away.
The interrogations of witnesses in the Second Bakhchysarai case were instructive regarding falsification methods. For instance, both secret witnesses would take numerous pauses during their speech while third-party voices could be noticed, regularly engulf themselves in controversies, fail to elucidate these inconsistencies, not remember most allegedly incriminating specifics, and make absurd points, such as that Hizb ut-Tahrir received hundreds of thousands dollars from their supporters in the Middle East. The interrogation of “secret witness Bekirov” by Edem Smailov, one of the defendants and a religious leader, testifies that secret witnesses on the accusation side are just Russian lapdogs and their testimonies are fundamentally unreliable:
– I don’t remember.
– Did I give you Hizb ut-Tahrir literature?
– I don’t remember.
– And the rest of the defendants, who specifically called on you, who didn’t?
– Yes, Marlen Asanov, Server Zekiryaev.
– Did I call for the seizure of power?– I don’t remember.
– Did I call you to take hostages? – but the court for some reason removes the question.
– Have I called on you to kill people in power?
– I don’t remember.
– Did you study military science at the meetings?
– I don’t remember.
– Did I call you to intolerance towards other nationalities?
– I don’t remember.
– And intolerance towards people of other confessions?
– I don’t remember.
According to defense lawyer Emil Kurbedinov, the prosecution repeatedly uses witness testimonies to prepare false evidence in Hizb ut-Tahrir cases. He further adds that all secret witnesses give absolutely cut-and-dried statements which serve as “lifelines” for the prosecution’s arguments. The lawyer singles out that the defense’s questions to nail down witnesses lies are disallowed by the court under various excuses.
All in all, the evidence presented by witnesses does not provide the basis for accusing the eight Crimean Tatars of terrorism or affiliation with the Islamic party.
4. Coerced confessions
Some of the accused report that Russian security forces used torture against them to extract false confessions.
Raim Aivazov is one of the defendants in the Hizb ut-Tahrir case against the Second Simferopol group. Most of the accused were detained in the course of mass searches in Crimean Tatar households on 27-28 March 2019. Later, the 23 arrestees were joined by two other people, among whom was Raim Aivazov.
Mariia Eismont, Raim Aivazov’s lawyer, was denied her motion calling for crucial evidence to ensure fair proceedings. The defence demanded the court request Raim’s mobile operator to provide information on incoming and outgoing calls, test messages, and addresses of base transmitter stations which provided Raim Aivazov’s telephone service. This evidence is vital as Raim’s Apple iPhone 7 was with him during his kidnapping and tortures by Russian Federal Security Service officers. Raim was able to drop a line his wife’s way but then was out of touch after official arrest.
The defendant Raim Aivazov recognised Federal Security Service operative Renat Valiulin among one of the witnesses from the accusation side. Raim maintains that Renat Valiulin took part in torturing him during his detention. At first, the operative denied he knew the accused but later proved that he actually detained and transferred him to the Federal Security Service building. Renat Valiulin stated that no stops were made and all personal belongings of Raim were never taken away. Nevertheless, Serhei Makhnev, a detective who previously worked on Raim’s case, refused to return the accused phone under the pretext that “the phone has not been seized in the criminal investigation”.
Defence and the accused supported the motion and another person involved in the case, Remzi Bekirov, added that the accusation line is based upon initial testimony of Raim Aivazov which is to be double-checked. But the court turned down the defense motion for calling evidence, Raim’s phone.
Another case of Federal Security Service coercing the accused in Crimea to incriminate themselves involves Vladyslav Yesypenko, a freelancer of RFE/RL’s Crimean desk.
Vladyslav was detained on 10 March 2021, on his way from Simferopol to Alushta in relation to a falsified accusation of illicit manufacture of an explosive device, as a part of a general Russian policy of attack on independent journalists in Crimea. The accused claims that special service agents planted a grenade in his car and then took him to the basement where he was tortured by electric current and beaten up all night long until the accused finally testified against himself. Afterwards, they took Vladyslav to his alleged grenade stash to record a video of him falsely confessing to having produced the explosives, as a part of examination proceedings.
“Vladyslav was taken to a next room where a Federal Security Service member awaited. He once again started to threaten to punish physically or to kill him. He demanded that Vladyslav did not deny his confessionary statements where he mentioned his involvement in a non-existent [fabricated] crime,” said Aleksei Ladin.
The lawyer added that Vladyslav was brought to questioning procedure in a remand center handcuffed. In a police van, they threatened to kill Vladyslav should he change the confessions. Notwithstanding intimidation, the accused explained in interrogation that previously he had confessed to untruths against himself after cruel tortures.
The Russian authorities’ wicked ends to put innocent people behind bars have always justified their no less wicked means. Russian police officers not only fail to protect activists and journalists in Crimea from hate-based attacks but also take the leading role in these crimes.
5. Closed trials
Russian authorities know perfectly well that closed trials are the most handy setting to commit violations of criminal law procedures in hearings of cases against Crimean Tatars. This infringement is particularly explicit in cases involving 26 Crimean activists and practicing Muslims who were arrested by Russian security forces upon two large-scaled search operations carried out on 27 March and 14 February 2019 across the Crimean Peninsula.
The pre-trial detention sessions were short, formal and conducted in a private setting or with extremely poor access to the public, the “Fighting Terrorism or Terrifying Activism?” report says. All hearings lasted as little as 5-15 minutes. This would not allow judges to take into account all appropriate circumstances. Defence claims concerning procedural violations prior to and during the hearings, such as disproportionate pretrial detentions of all 26 Crimean Tatars, were dismissed.
This case is by far not the only one instance when the right to a public trial is denied. Generally, proceedings are either officially closed or technically public but in fact, with considerably limited access. In the former case, courts persistently fail to provide substantial grounds for denying public availability and defence motions with this regard.
According to Article 241(1) Russian Code of Criminal Procedure, a closed hearing may be held when “criminal proceedings before a court may result in the disclosure of State or other information”.
Valentyn Vyhivskyi is a Ukrainian citizen, a Euromaidan activist, and aviation fan. In September 2014, one of his female acquaintances from Crimea (at that time already occupied by Russia) maintained that she urgently needed financial help to treat her family member’s cancer, but was not able to come to mainland Ukraine because of her job. Valentyn trusted the woman, collected the necessary sum of money, and went to the Peninsula.
Valentyn Vyhivskyi went missing around the dates of arrival. On 6 October 2014, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry established that he had been detained on 18 September. However, his location remained unknown. Only in November, Vyhivskyi’s family received a pretty generic letter from him with a source address that cleared up that he was being held in Russia.
Charges against Valentyn are shrouded in mystery. Primarily, he was accused of “illegally receiving and divulging commercial, tax or banking secrets” (article 183 of Russia’s criminal code). Later, the amendment of charges took place and Valentyn was convicted of an attempt to collect the state secrets of the Russian federation to convey it to the Ukrainian Security Service. The Federal Security Service asserted that Valentyn Vyhivskyi had pleaded guilty during detention in Crimea. But they failed to clarify the reasons for bringing the accused to Moscow and detaining him in complete isolation for eight months.
What is worse, Vyhivskyi is certain to have been subjected to torture. It is really only from visits by his mother, Halyna Vyhivska, in 2015 that we could learn of means of persuasion applied to Valentyn, including but not limited to two mock executions in a forest and other forms of torture. To make the case worse, Valentyn is currently held in a prison colony in solitary confinement. This renders it possible to restrict visits from Vyhivsky’s family members.
From the onset of the occupation, Russia has massively used a variety of its legislative and extra-legal tools to fabricate cases against Crimean activists and silence them. This has resulted in many Crimeans fleeing their indigenous land, or a “hybrid deportation,” echoing Stalin’s deportation of the entire Crimean Tatar population in 1944. Ukraine is unable to put a halt to repressions in Crimea as long as it is under Russian occupation. Only international solidarity could bring about an end to grave human rights violations on the Peninsula.