Russian Repression: Kremlin targets scores of Crimean Tatars for detention

Nariman Dzhelyal woke up in the early hours of Sept. 4 to the sounds of a dozen armed men breaking into his home in Russian-occupied Crimea.

In the span of 48 hours after police hauled Dzhelyal off for questioning, almost 60 other people in Crimea were detained in a massive crackdown.

Dzhelyal is the deputy head of Mejlis, the representative body of Crimean Tatars. A week before the arrest he visited Kyiv to attend the Crimea Platform summit, Ukraine’s diplomatic initiative to end Russia’s occupation of the peninsula.

Now, Russian authorities are accusing him of helping blow up a gas pipeline in a small Crimean village.

Ukraine’s officials believe that the recent wave of arbitrary arrests in Crimea is Russia’s revenge for the Crimea Platform.

“This is how the Russian Federation reacts to the start of the Crimea Platform,” President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted soon after the arrests began.

Olga Skrypnyk, a co-coordinator of the expert network of the Crimea Platform, said it was easy to predict that Russia would punish people like Dzhelyal for their vocal support for the de-occupation of Crimea.

Prior to the summit, during our meetings with international partners I told them that there is a risk of Russia not only pressuring Ukraine for holding Crimea Platform but also going after each person who supported it,” said Skrypnyk, a native of Crimea who fled to Kyiv after the Russian occupation of her home.

Unfortunately, our worst expectations came true,” she told the Kyiv Post.

When Skrypnyk told Dzhelyal about her concerns for his safety at the summit on Aug. 23, he respond- ed that he must be there “because that is right.” The same determination kept him in Crimea even after the 2014 occupation and Russia’s ban on Mejlis.

“This was his position to stay in Crimea together with his people. For him as the first deputy head of Mejlis, it was important to be around, especially in difficult times. When there were searches and arrests he was always there helping victims,” Skrypnyk said.

But this time, Russian law enforcement did not let him get away with opposing them.

Russia’s retaliation

On the morning of Sept. 4, Russian forces raided Dzhelyal’s house, put him in an unmarked van, and drove him away.

No one knew where he was until the next morning, when his lawyer Emine Avamileva found him in Russia’s Federal Security Services, the FSB, building in Simferopol, Crimea’s second-largest city.

In a letter to his other lawyer, Nikolai Polozov, Dzhelyal wrote that the men took him to a basement with a sack on his head.

The FSB interrogated him, accusing of aiding in blowing up a pipeline in Perevalne, a small village in southern Crimea.

Trying to make Dzhelyal testify against himself, they threatened that he had only two options “a bad one and a very bad one,” he writes.

n his cell, Dzhelyal saw messages from other political prisoners like himself.

“Freedom for political prisoners” was carved up on a wall. “Illegally imprisoned people are sitting here,” another one says.

“I wonder who it is? Many Crimean Tatars passed through this cell,” Dzhelyal writes in the letter.

63 arrests in 48 hours

At the same time as Russia’s law enforcement detained Dzhelyal, it came after two of his close friends, activist cousins Aziz and Asan Akhtemov.

Prosecutors accused the trio of deliberately damaging the gas pipeline. A Simferopol court put them under arrest for two months, until Nov. 4.

Each of the Akhtemov cousins faces up to 15 years in prison for the alleged pipeline explosion, while Dzhelyal could spend 13.5 years in jail for allegedly aiding and abetting them.

“This is a completely fake case. Their political motivation is destroying the remains of whatever dissent that’s left on the peninsula,” Polozov, Dzhelyal’s lawyer, told the Kyiv Post.

The FSB issued a statement blaming Ukraine’s military intelligence for employing Crimean Tatars to blow up the gas pipeline. It was reportedly damaged on Aug. 23, when the Crimea Platform was being held in Kyiv.

The FSB accused Ukrainian law enforcement of training Crimean Tatars on how to handle explosives and offering them $2,000 to damage the pipeline.

Ukraine’s intelligence service denied involvement.

“This is a number of systemic provocations against our state, against the Main Intelligence Directorate. They aim to justify repressive measures against Crimean Tatars,” Mykola Krasniy, a spokesperson for the intelligence unit, told RFE/RL.

Sudden arbitrary arrests are common in Crimea. But the detention of 60 people in a single day is unusual.

Russian forces threw a diverse array of charges at the Crimeans they seized.

Furniture shop owner Eldar Odamanov and handyman Shevket Useinov were initially detained for blowing up the pipeline but then were suddenly let go. This was only done to detain them again on other charges, Odamanov’s lawyer Lilia Gemedzhy told the Kyiv Post.

Minutes after their release, police officers approached them on the street and demanded to see their IDs. For their alleged disobedience, they received an administrative penalty of 15 and 14 days in jail, respectively.

Large crowds of people, mostly Crimean Tatars and families of the five detainees later came to the FSB building in Simferopol, demanding to know the location of five men who had been kidnapped earlier.

Russia’s national guard detained almost every one of them. They received administrative charges, and all but two men were released.

History of repression

Since Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, over 160 Crimean Tatars became political prisoners of the Kremlin for their opposition to Russia’s occupation and its frequent crackdowns. Most have been thrown into Russian prisons on charges like terrorism.

The Mejlis leadership has been a nuisance to the Kremlin ever since it seized Crimea from Ukraine.

On June 1, a Russian-controlled court in Crimea sentenced Mejlis’s head Refat Chubarov to nine years in prison for allegedly organizing mass riots near the Crimean parliament in 2014 in protest of Russian occupation.

Chubarov fled the peninsula shortly after. His deputy, Dzhelyal, stayed.

Even though he’s in jail, Dzhelyal insists he will not leave his home.

“I don’t have the slightest desire to leave Crimea and my home,” Dzhelyal says in the letter to his lawyer.

World reacts

World leaders called on Russia to immediately release Dzhelyal and other political prisoners.

The European Union, one of the 46 organizations and countries that participated in the Crimea Platform, condemned Russia’s aggression against Crimean Tatars.

“The European Union considers the detentions to be politically motivated and illegal under international law,” the EU’s diplomatic service said in a statement on Sept. 7.

“The European Union calls on the Russian Federation to comply with its obligations under international law and stop human rights violations of Crimea residents, as also stated on 23 August 2021 in the common statement of the International Crimean Platform Summit,” the statement reads.

The United States, another member of the Crimea Platform, criticized Russia for persecuting Crimean Tatars as well.

“We call on the Russian occupation authorities to release them immediately. This is the latest in a long line of politically motivated raids, detentions, and punitive measures against the Mejlis and its leadership, which has been targeted for repression for its opposition to Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea,” the U.S.Embassy to Russia said in a statement.

Canada Embassy in Ukraine also called on Russia to release Crimean Tatars in a statement, saying that “Dzhelal’s group was simply exercising its right to freedom of speech and assembly.”

Amnesty International’s office in Ukraine said that the case against Dzhelyal and his friends was clearly fabricated.

“We are convinced that the only purpose of the criminal prosecution of Dzhelyalov is to silence him and stop independent civic activity on the territory of the peninsula. Russian authorities must immediately stop persecuting dissent in Crimea,” said Oksana Pokalchuk, head of Amnesty International Ukraine.

However, statements are not enough to help, says Skrypnyk.

She called on world leaders to impose another series of personal sanctions against Russian authorities for the latest crackdown on Crimean Tatars.

“We have already prepared names of people that must be included in the sanctions list. Those are people responsible for detaining Dzhelyal and others,” said Skrypnyk, head of the Crimean Human Rights Group.

“Additionally, we need to come up with a mechanism that would enable the arrest of the real estate, other assets that the Russian leadership has outside Russia, in order to give those assets as compensation to those suffering from Russia’s aggression,” she suggested.

“There is a good reason to go beyond regular mechanisms. We have enough resolutions. The problem is that Russia does not comply with them,” she said.

“We need to make Putin’s actions cost him money.”

 Kyivpost.com, Anna Myroniuk , Anastasiia Lapatina

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