The Crimean Tatars in general, and the Mejlis in particular, have been staunch opponents of Russia’s occupation of their native Crimean peninsula. In September 2016, Russia banned the Mejlis, flouting the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples. Mejlis leaders Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov have been banned from entering their homeland.
Since his arrest, Akhtem Chiygoz has spent more than 2,5 years or nearly 950 days behind bars. His mother died during the trial, in July 2017. On the demand of the international community, Russian authorities allowed the prisoner to see his mother two weeks before she passed away. “I am proud that I brought up such a son!” she said him at that last meeting. Chiygoz was denied attending her funeral.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the conviction of Akhtem Chiygoz “a verdict to Russia.”[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7MPonS44Tg]
Here is what you need to know about this show trial.
1. Russia judged him for participating in a pro-Ukrainian rally that took place before the annexation of Crimea
Chiygoz was found guilty of “organizing mass unrest” during a pro-Ukrainian rally that took place in the Crimean capital on 26 February 2014, weeks before Russia annexed the peninsula.
They were trying block the Crimean parliament from passing a resolution on separating from Ukraine. A smaller rally of pro-Russian organizations was being held at the same place. Clashes erupted as a result of poor work of the police. In result, 30 people suffered injuries, and two subsequently died.
Akhtem Chiygoz is a prominent figure of the Crimean Tatar national movement. When after the annexation, Moscow banned two key Crimean Tatar leaders, Dzhemilev and Chubarov, from entering Crimea, Chiygoz became an acting head of the Mejlis. In January 2015, he was arrested and sent to remand jail. Next year, the Mejlis itself was outlawed in Russia.
2. Russia can’t prove Chiygoz is guilty of the accusations
Russian authorities have been unable to find any incriminating evidence proving Chiygoz is guilty of what they accused him of. No video filmed on that day and attached to the case proves that Chiygoz either played an organizational role during the pro-Ukrainian rally or personally participated in the clashes with pro-Russian opponents. Instead, the recordings show Chiygoz trying to calm the activists in order to avoid violence.
The great majority of witnesses (209 of 213) also did not corroborate the unfounded charges against him.
3. Despite the Russian occupiers admitting they prepared a violent confrontation, only Crimean Tatars are being judged
For instance, in the course of the trial, the Moscow-appointed “head of Crimea” Sergey Aksyonov and speaker of the puppet Crimean parliament Vladimir Konstantinov were questioned as witnesses for the prosecution. They failed to add any substantial evidence regarding the role of Chiygoz in the events.
At the same time, they admitted that in February 2014, pro-Russian forces in Crimea were consciously preparing for a violent confrontation. Aksyonov himself said that he had bought ammunition and bulletproof vests for the paramilitary units. What followed the clashes was the night seizure of the Crimean parliament and government by Russian commandos, illegal installation of Aksyonov, and occupation of the Ukrainian region.
However, all the defendants in the so-called “26 February case” are Crimean Tatars, and no pro-Russian activist has been held accountable for the developments of that day. This betrays the real motives behind this politically motivated case: to oppose ethnic communities of Crimea to each other and intimidate the most active and organized anti-occupation group. The trial was meant to show that everyone, from the authoritative leader to an ordinary activist, can be punished if he or she does not choose to keep silence or leave Crimea.
“The people being prosecuted are those who defended the laws of the country, international norms, and rules,” Chiygoz emphasized in his last word before the verdict. “The trial was initiated by the occupying country, which has no right to this.”
4. For nearly two years, Russia attempted to force two more Crimean Tatars to give a false testimony against Chiygoz
Russia had imprisoned Ali Asanov and Mustafa Dehermendzhi for over two years, officially for participating in the same protest as Akhtem Chiygoz. No video of the protest shows evidence they are guilty of inciting violence; in fact, they show one was a victim of violence himself, and the other escorted his elderly father. Neither do the videos show they had seen Chiygoz. Nevertheless, the two Crimean Tatars were told they would be released if they testified against Chiygoz. To the men’s honor, they refused to collaborate. After more than two years of dragging out the trial, they were released from custody and placed under home arrest. Yet the case against them has not been closed.
5. Chiygoz, Asanov, and Dehermendzhi have been recognized as political prisoners
Amnesty International considers Chiygoz as a prisoner of conscience. The authoritative Memorial Russian Human Rights Center has recognized all three men as political prisoners. In its statement, it gives the following reasoning:
- The self-proclaimed Russian authorities accuse the three Crimean Tatars of injuring two people who had Russian citizenship at the moment of the protest, despite those alleged victims were not injured;
- The self-proclaimed Russian authorities accuse the Crimean Tatars of violating Ukrainian law, which is legal nonsense;
- The three Crimean Tatars are accused of seizing the Crimean parliament, although it was actually seized by unknown pro-Russian militants in masks;
- Only the Crimean Tatar side is being prosecuted, although both sides committed acts of violence; moreover, the violence wasn’t organized;
- The witness testimonies are self-contradictory;
- According to the Geneva Convention of 1949, the occupying country, which Russia is regarding Crimea, cannot arrest, prosecute, or imprison persons for actions or opinions committed or expressed before the occupation.
Read and watch: Why is the Kremlin taking Ukrainian political hostages?
6. Chiygoz is one of at least 44 Ukrainians imprisoned by Russia on political motives
Out of them, at least 19 are being persecuted for their religious beliefs, most being Crimean Tatars. The LetMyPeopleGo campaign advocates for the release of all the illegally jailed Ukrainians. The most well-known of the unjustly imprisoned Ukrainians is Oleg Sentsov, a filmmaker who also protested against the occupation of his native Crimea.
7. Human rights activists want to install personal sanctions against Russian officials responsible for the persecution of Chiygoz and other Ukrainians
The veteran leader of the Crimean Tatar national movement, former Soviet political prisoner Mustafa Dzhemilev says a book about the Chiygoz trial is likely to be published in several languages to help the world understand the scale of lawlessness in today’s Crimea.
— olexander scherba (@olex_scherba) September 11, 2017
Meanwhile, human rights defenders are going to pursue the idea of personal sanctions against Russian officials responsible for the persecution of Chiygoz and other Ukrainian citizens, from the Crimean investigators up to President Putin.
“Akhtem Chiygoz himself has withstood this long judicial marathon with a great dignity,” notes the head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis Refat Chubarov. “He did not defend himself but rather attacked in response to the illegal, brutal action of Russian occupiers. His lawyers, first of all Nikolai Polozov, built their legal defense so systematically that we will directly go to the European Court of Human Rights for sure.”
Chubarov believes that the today’s judges and tormentors of Akhtem Chiygoz will once appear before the court for themselves.
The defense and supporters of Chiygoz point out that, despite the complete absurdity of the trial, a favorable fact is that the judgment describes him as the Ukrainian citizen. This presumes his possible extradition to mainland Ukraine, in contrast to other Crimean dissidents, the political prisoners Oleg Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko, who were recognized Russian nationals against their will.
In her comment with regard to the recent verdict, the director of Amnesty International in Ukraine Oksana Pokalchuk has stressed that Akhtem Chiygoz is a prisoner of conscience who was deprived of freedom for the peaceful realization of his human rights, and he must be released unconditionally and without delay.
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