Crimean Tatar family holds signs protesting Russia's persecution of the Crimean Tatars. Bottom right sign reads "Deportation. 1944, great-grandfather; 2021, father." Photo: Crimean Solidarity
After the occupation of Crimea in 2014, Russian authorities launched a wave of raids and searches in Crimean Tatar homes. The Tatars were accused and continue to be accused of “participation in the terrorist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir.”
In 2003, the Russian Supreme Court recognized Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organization, whose activities are prohibited in the Russian Federation. The court decision stated that was Hizb ut-Tahrir was a “militant Islamist propaganda organization, spreading religious intolerance, and engaged in active recruitment and purposeful work to split society.”
More than a hundred people have been detained on the peninsula and divided into twelve Hizb ut-Tahrir groups. The first four were detained in Sevastopol in 2015; the last – in February 2021. The arrests have not ceased since 2015. In fact, all such “cases” are built on only one argument and accusation – these individuals, namely Crimean Tatars, are accused of reading certain literature and discussing certain topics.
The longest sentence is 19 years in a maximum security penal colony in the Yalta Hizb ut-Tahrir case – Muslim Aliev, and in the Bakhchisaray Hizb ut-Tahrir case – Suleiman Asanov.
The prosecution bases its arguments on the same evidence, which is repeated from case to case. This evidence includes recordings of conversations, certain religious literature prohibited in Russia, and testimonies of hidden witnesses, which, more often than not, are Russian FSB officers or FSB-recruited individuals.
The defendants have no opportunity to justify themselves. When the defense argues that the accused are not terrorists, the judges cite the decision dated 2003, thus showing that the Supreme Court has long ruled differently. It does not matter at all that the persons charged under such articles did not plan or commit any terrorist attacks. According to the prosecution, they read certain books and brochures and then discussed what they read.
Four men with disabilities – Zekirya Muratov, Dzhemil Gafarov, Aleksandr Sizikov and Amet Suleymanov – were imprisoned for these reasons only. Two of them have been in prison since 2019, and two are under house arrest. Fifteen other elderly persons were imprisoned on the same grounds, including my client, Enver Omerov, who was sentenced to 18 years in a maximum security penal colony.
It is for these same reasons that Teymur Abdullayev, a defendant in the second Simferopol Hizb ut-Tahrir case has been kept in a punitive isolation cell for more than a year. On June 11, he was transferred to another cell, but remained under a strict prison regime. Abdullayev contracted Covid-19 in November 2020, yet despite a high fever and other symptoms, he was yet again placed in a punishment cell, where his health continues to deteriorate. This time the reasons for extending his detention in solitary were somewhat different, but “very serious”: he did not make his bed neatly enough; he did not greet colony employees; he lay on his bed when it was forbidden, etc.
When Teymur Abdullayev was imprisoned on October 16, 2016, he was a strong and healthy athlete and a respected coach of the taekwondo team in Simferopol. Here is how his mother describes her last brief meeting, which she managed to negotiate with the prison authorities at the end of May, 2021:
“When I saw Teymur, I was frankly shocked. My son was exhausted; his face as I knew it was gone; a body of skin and bones like a ghost from a concentration camp. His face was swollen; his yellow eyes stared at me. I looked more closely at his eyes and saw that many blood vessels had burst and his eyes were filled with blood. This is a bad sign. His tongue is dry and cracked. He told me he felt severe pain in his stomach. His liver and kidney also hurt. There are wounds in the corners of his mouth, indicating intestinal inflammation. He is bruised from head to foot!”
For more than 18 years, human rights activists have been trying to explain that it is wrong and cruel to destroy people’s lives and imprison them in such inhuman conditions. Real terrorists have weapons in their hands, but these men held books and gathered in small circles to discuss them.
When the Autonomous Republic of Crimea was an integral part of independent Ukraine, and since the mass return of the Crimean Tatars from exile, not a single terrorist act has been perpetrated on the peninsula.
Only with the beginning of the invasion of Crimea by the Russian Federation did the occupation authorities begin to pursue an Islamophobic policy aimed at creating an atmosphere of fear and intolerance among the local population in relation to Crimean Tatars and Islam.
It is very obvious that “terrorism” is used purely for mercantile political purposes, and the victims of such a policy are hundreds of ordinary people – the accused themselves, members of their families, and especially the children. There are already more than two hundred children whose fathers have been persecuted, convicted, and sent to prisons and camps.
So-called “crime prevention” must not be used randomly to replace essential actions against real terrorists and criminals. It is obvious why Russian law enforcement agencies are so zealously accusing and imprisoning Crimean Tatars. Indeed, it is easier for the authorities to fight and “prevent” crime in this way than to look for real threats and crimes.
But what is happening now?! Russian law enforcement agencies are following the easy path, where it does not matter at all whether the accused actually conceived, planned, and prepared a terrorist attack or a crime. The men involved in the Hizb ut-Tahrir cases simply gathered and talked about religion in a context and framework that was not approved by the Russian occupation authorities and the state-appointed religious leaders.
76 years ago, the Soviet government labelled the Crimean Tatars as a “traitorous nation” and deported thousands to remote regions of the Russian SFSR. Today, the Russian occupation authorities are repeating the same scenario by labelling the Crimean Tatars as “terrorists” and throwing them into prison… despite the fact that traditionally, the Crimean Tatar people do not use violence in one form or another to achieve their goals. On the contrary, for decades, the Crimean Tatars have sought to reinforce their civil and political rights and freedoms through peaceful and democratic means.
The vile and underhanded attempts of Russian authorities to discredit the Crimean Tatars must not be kept silent. We should openly discuss and condemn the actions of the Russian occupation authorities, and most importantly, denounce the outrageous sentences for “thought crimes” and reading books (often planted during searches).
No less important are the rehabilitation of all the victims of these repressions over the past seven years and, together with independent international experts, a judicial review of law enforcement practices in the Hizb ut-Tahrir cases in Crimea.
- Being yourself is not a crime: look into the eyes of kids of Crimean Tatar political prisoners jailed by Russia
- Photo project spotlights Crimean Tatar kids born after their fathers’ unlawful arrests by Russian occupation authorities