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Behind the Lines: Innocence No Defense for Young Crimean

Leniie Umerova is 25-years-old and one of hundreds of Ukrainian political prisoners held in Russia. Her story underscores the harsh reality of returning to a homeland under occupation.

Umerova, a Ukrainian citizen from Crimea, has been held without trial for a year and two months, including 10 months in the FSB’s notorious Lefortovo detention center on suspicion of espionage. The charge could result in a 20-year prison sentence.

All because she tried to visit the occupied peninsula to see her father, who was recovering from cancer surgery, in December 2022

Umerova, a Crimean Tatar, had moved to Kyiv to finish high school following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 because her mother didn’t want her to have a Russian passport. She then entered the National Technical University of Ukraine, where she majored in chemical technologies before finding work as a social media manager for a Ukrainian clothing company.

“She would come every six months,” Rezvan Umerov, Leniie’s father, told Krym.Realii. “We thought this time would be the same.”

She was detained at the Verkhniy Lars checkpoint, on the Russian-Georgian border. After Russia’s full-scale invasion, it was almost the only option for getting to Crimea. She had to travel through Bulgaria, Romania, and Georgia’s border with Russia.

“At first, everything went as usual: documents and luggage were checked, citizens of Ukraine were told to hand over their phones for checking,” Umerova said in letters from the pre-trial detention center, published by her brother on Facebook. “Everything that happened next was like some kind of endless, terrible dream.”

Aziz Umerov, Leniie’s brother, is convinced her Ukrainian passport was the reason she was detained by Russian forces.

“She was the only passenger on the bus who didn’t have a Russian passport,” he said. “They began to treat her meticulously after realizing she was born in Crimea but never obtained a Russian passport.”

Officials said they found some information on her phone and laptop they didn’t like. After interrogations, Umerova was put in a taxi in the middle of the night and sent to a hotel near Russian Vladikavkaz, her brother told Suspilne Crimea.

The taxi was moving along the state border, which was forbidden for foreign citizens under Russian law, and traffic police officers stopped the vehicle and arrested her for being in a restricted area. The same night a Russian court ordered her “detention in an isolation cell for stateless persons and foreign citizens,” her brother said.

Umerova was held in the Center for Temporary Detention of Foreign Citizens near Vladikavkaz until March 2023.

After that, the occupiers initiated new “cases” against her, which led to a series of administrative arrests. She was kept in detention centers in Vladikavkaz and Beslan before being taken to Moscow. On May 5 she was arrested again, this time by the Lefortovo District Court of Moscow, on “espionage” charges.

The case was promptly classified as secret, and at her most recent appearance, Umerova’s detention was extended for a further two months, until May 4, 2024.

“When the FSB allege treason or espionage, they often force a lawyer to sign a non-disclosure agreement,” said Olga Skrypnyk, who chairs the board of the Crimean Human Rights Group. “In this way the whole case becomes a state secret.”

Leniie Umerova has been held illegally for 14 months, in violation of all human rights standards, Skrypnyk said. There is little point in hoping legal mechanisms or a fair trial will lead to her release, so diplomatic-political mechanisms are the best chance, she added.

“The most realistic thing for Leniie today is to be released through a swap between the Russian Federation and Ukraine,” Skrypnyk told CEPA. “In practice that can only be after sentence – and there are no guarantees.”

Moscow and Kyiv agreed on a swap of women prisoners in October 2022, in which 108 Ukrainian women, including 12 civilians, were swapped for 110 Russians, but since the full-scale invasion, no political prisoners from Crimea have been released through such exchanges.

A newly opened International Platform for the Release of Civilians Illegally Detained by the Russian Federation needs to work hard and adapt to find a mechanism for the release and return of Ukrainian civilians, Skrypnyk said.

“The platform was launched on February 26 by the Ombudsman of Ukraine, but without the participation of human rights organizations,” she said. “It is important to include such organizations as they have been taking care of this problem in Crimea and Donbas since 2014, keeping lists, collecting evidence, and providing legal and other assistance.”

An information campaign outside Ukraine is also necessary, she said, as it is difficult for politicians and diplomats around the world to understand that Russia is detaining and taking hostage not just military prisoners of war, but thousands of civilians.

The civilians being held are terribly tortured, raped, and die without medical help, so it is vital to act with urgency, she said.

More than 200 Crimeans are currently being held on politically motivated criminal charges, Skrypnyk said, and the longer the occupied territories remain under Russian control, the more civilian hostages there will be.

Ukraine’s Mission in Crimea says Umerova’s captivity is purely political and part of a propaganda operation against Crimean Tatars, giving cover for crackdowns on activists.

“By accusing a Crimean Tatar woman of espionage, the occupiers highlight the perceived ‘danger’ posed by this indigenous group,” the mission said in a statement posted on Facebook. “In such a way, they justify the fight with Crimean Tatar activists who advocate for Ukraine’s support and the peninsula’s liberation.”

Umerova’s second birthday behind bars – her 26th – will be marked in the Lefortovo pre-trial detention center, where Stalin’s secret police carried out some of their most brutal atrocities. It is still regarded as one of the worst in Russia due to its harsh conditions, cruel treatment of prisoners, and severe restrictions on communication with the outside world.

Her family says maintaining communication is extremely challenging. Letters are extensively censored, and her captors “advise” writing in Russian. Despite pressure, she persists in sending letters in her mother tongue.

She says she is determined not to let the Russians break her psychologically. In January she wrote a letter to all Ukrainians and thanked them for their support.

“They can take away my freedom, put me in a cage, turn my life upside down, but they cannot deprive me of my values ​​and principles,” she wrote. “These times are challenging for all Ukrainians. Let us proudly overcome our difficulties and reclaim all that is dear to us.”

Elina Beketova is a Democracy Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), focusing on the occupied territories of Ukraine. She worked as a journalist, editor, and TV anchor for various news stations in Kharkiv and Kyiv.

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