The Crimean Tatars faced deportation from the peninsula under Stalin in 1944. Today, they are facing a policy of quiet expulsion from their lands
The pseudo-referendum to separate Crimea from Ukraine was not even over when activists were already worried about the human rights situation beginning to deteriorate on the peninsula. This was especially true of the Crimean Tatars, who had actively lobbied against the annexation of the autonomous republic. On February 26, 2014, a large demonstration in support of Ukraine had taken place outside the Crimean legislature in Simferopol, organized by Refat Chubarov, a Ukrainian MP and head of the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar self-governing council. Next to this rally was a pro-Russian demonstration by the “Russian Unity,” organized by none other than Sergei Aksionov, who would shortly declare himself head of the Crimean Council of Ministers.
Fights broke out between the two camps that were to be the basis for a criminal case known as the “February 26 case.” On the night of February 27, Russian soldiers appeared on the streets of Simferopol. By early March, Ukraine’s border service reported that several hundred Crimean Tatars had moved to mainland Ukraine, ostensibly for security reasons, according private conversations with members of Crimea’s indigenous peoples. It quickly became clear that they were right.
Even before the pseudo-referendum, Crimean Tatars were already being persecuted: in early March, Reshat Ametov was kidnapped. From what has been reconstructed of those events, Ametov had left home on March 3 to join a peaceful rally outside the Crimean legislature in Simferopol. There, three men in unmarked uniforms detained him and he never came home that evening. Some two weeks later, his body was found with evidence of torture about 45 kilometers outside Simferopol. Human rights organizations demanded that those guilty of Ametov’s murder be found, yet information about this incident is still not widely known in Crimea. In addition to this, attacks on individuals speaking the Crimean Tatar language increased, as did abductions and cases of Tatars being driven out of the peninsula.
In April 2014, the situation sharply deteriorated. The local “militia” attacked the Mejlis building and tore down the Ukrainian flag hanging on it. And when people tried to raise the flag again a few days later, the self-proclaimed Crimean prosecutor Natalia Poklonskaya issued an official warning for this kind of “violation.” In the run-up to May 18, the Day Honoring the Victims of Deportation, Crimean Tatars were issued a complete ban on any kind of public event. In addition, as a way to “clean the place up,” local “police” organized a series of mass detentions.
For instance, on May 7, at least 20 Crimean Tatars were detained in Yevpatoria and fingerprinted. The Russian occupiers claimed that this operation was a search for criminals who had supposedly killed a family in Krasnodar. The day prior to this incident, May 6, around 50 armed men broke into a mosque in the village of Molodizhne in Simferopol County and tried to detain more than 100 Muslims. Eventually they released everybody, but demanded that Tatars show up at the police station on their own. A month earlier, in the village of Pionerske in that same county, men in masks had detained 35 Crimean Tatars. Rights activists talked about widespread “anti-Tatar raids.” By the end of 2014, nearly two dozen Crimeans had been abducted by the occupying forces and some of them were never found alive.
Nor did the occupying forces limit themselves to attacks and abductions. In the meantime, it launched a campaign against the Mejlis itself. The renowned Tatar leader, Mustafa Djemilev, was banned from the territory of Crimea. Soon, Refat Chubarov, head of the Mejlis, was also banned. In September 2014, the Mejlis was moved out of its building in Simferopol. Crimean Tatar media were shut down across the peninsula, including the highly popular television channel ATR, which later renewed its broadcasts from Kyiv.
“The Crimean Tatars were the main organized opposition to the occupation of Crimea,” explains HR activist Oleksandra Matviychuk, coordinator of the LetMyPeopleGo campaign, which monitors human rights violations on the peninsula and the situation with Ukrainians imprisoned by the Kremlin. “This automatically made them the personal enemies of the authoritarian regime in Russia. In the last three years, they have faced an entire arsenal of persecutions. We’ve seen violent abductions, fabricated criminal cases, the closure of the Mejlis, the shutdown of the ATR TV channel. There have been constant searches of Tatar schools and mosques. You might even say that there’s an undercover deportation in process. The occupying regime has been sending a very clear signal to the Crimean Tatars: clear out or shut your mouths.”
In addition to the February 26 case, the Hizb ut-Tahrir case has been making headlines, named after an international islamic political party that was declared a terrorist organization by Russia in 2003 and banned in the Russian Federation. This trumped-up case involved the most defendants, 19 individuals who were arrested at different times. The process is being handled by one Viktor Palagin, who used to work in Bashkiria, also known as Bashkortostan, a Russian territory between the Volga and the Urals.In 2015, the second wave of persecutions began. For this purpose, Russia applied its infamous “antiterrorist legislation,” which provides law enforcement agencies with very broad powers. One year after the occupation started, Crimeans began to be arrested in what came to be known as the February 26 case. First was Mejlis Deputy Chair Akhtem Chiygoz, who was arrested on January 29, 2015. The official reason was that he was suspected of “organizing and participating in massive unrest.” On April 15 in the evening, Crimean Tatar farmer Ali Asanov was arrested as the supposed second suspect in the case. In May, a third Crimean Tatar, Mustafa Degermendji, was abducted in his way to work. Both were also accused of “participating in mass unrest.”
“After Palagin was assigned to head the Crimean division of the FSB, the witch hunt among Crimean muslims began in earnest,” recalls Matviychuk. “At least 19 Crimean Tatars are behind bars today, not because they committed or intended to commit a violent crime, but because of an unproven claim that they belong to Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is actually allowed to freely operate in Ukraine. This tactic was one that Palagin applied back in Bashkiria, where he organized sweeps against Hizb ut-Tahrir for more than five years.”
The latest phase of Crimean Tatar persecutions began more recently. This time, they went after the lawyers and supporters of those who were already being prosecuted. The story of Emil Kurbedinov is well known: he was sentenced to 10 days of administrative detention for simply reposting comments from the Hizb ut-Tahrir Ukraine group in a social network. In fact, Kurbedinov is possibly the best lawyer working for his fellow Crimeans on the peninsula. If we consider that Ukrainian lawyers are unable to act as defense attorneys in Crimean courts, while Russian ones are not exactly keen to go to the peninsula, this is clearly an attempt to scare off local lawyers.
Nor did the occupying government stop at this. It also began to seize property belonging to Crimean Tatars. On February 21, the home of Marlen Mustafayev was searched. He was accused of posting the symbol of Hizb ut-Tahrir in a social network in the summer of 2014 and was placed under administrative detention for 11 days. Ten other Crimean Tatars were detained by the occupying police along with Mustafayev, for recording the incident on their mobile phones and posting the event live online. They were accused of “engaging in an unsanctioned mass event.” Each of them was placed under administrative detention for five days.
Meanwhile, the Russian Federation has, in addition to using force, engaged in more “subtle” work within the community, such as setting up parallel representative organizations—including religious ones.
“Russia has used the tactic of setting up parallel community institutions, in self-government, in the religious sphere, and so on, for ages,” says Matviychuk. “What it can’t control, it simply replaces. After they shut down the ATR channel, the occupiers hurried to announce the establishment of an alternative Crimean Tatar channel called Millet. When they were searching Mustafayev’s home, they called reporters from this channel. But Millet doesn’t actually report on this kind of event, so, as anticipated, they never showed up. And so people who were standing outside he building were forced to record the police activities on their own phones.”
And of course there are the “pocket” community associations. One of these is Yednost Kryma [Crimean Unity], headed by Seitumer Nimetullayev. Prior to the occupation of Crimea, Nimetullayev was a government official, administrating Genichesk County, and at one point even the head of the local branch of Party of the Regions. In the fall of 2014, he publicly criticized the Kurultai.
“I believe that the Kurultai, as it now is, cannot represent the will of the Crimean Tatar people,” Nimetullayev stated at the time. “Today we have the best opportunity to shut down this Kurultai, and to schedule and hold a new election.”
Nimetullayev also voiced his own plans to set up a Kurultai “in line with Russian legislation.” He even gave an estimated deadline of October 2015. But those plans never came to be. By April 2016, the Crimean “Supreme Court” ruled that the Mejlis was an extremist organization and banned it. Meanwhile, the “deputy speaker of the legislature” and simultaneously leader of the “Krym” movement, Remzi Iliasov, announced plans to set up an “alternative Mejlis.” It was stated that community and religious activists had agreed to set up a special national commission that would organize a national convention for such an election. It turned out that this was supposed to take place in November or December 2016. As with the previous “plans,” however, nothing came of this, either.
“Efforts” with the Mufti of Crimea, Emirali Ablayev, proved more fruitful. The leaders of the Crimean Tatars more than once openly criticized Abayev’s collaboration with the occupiers. In fact, the Russians got to him very simply: by setting up an alternative in the form of a Tavrian muftiyat that was to be a counterbalance and rival to the Crimean one. Djemilev at one time had said that this organization was being used for blackmail. For instance, threats were issued that if the mosques did not accept the authority of the Crimean muftiyat, they would be shifted to the Tavrian one. Moreover, mosques were being set on fire on a regular basis. As a result of these actions, the religious life of the Crimean Tatars on the peninsula was under nominal control of the Russian Federation. Thus, the Crimean Mufti himself was caught on a Russian “hook.” Perhaps the Mufti could have rectified this situation in mainland Ukraine. Plans to this effect were even discussed, but never came to be.
Altogether, Mustafa Djemilev says that more than 20,000 Crimean Tatars have left the occupied peninsula. That does not mean they are entirely safe on mainland Ukraine, however. Human rights activists point out that most of those forcibly displaced individuals left behind families and loved ones. This makes them effectively hostages of the occupying government as victims of an undercover deportation. It’s hard to see this kind of state as being “safe.”