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Indigenous people suffer kidnappings, torture, imprisonment due to annexation of Crimea

Nine years ago, Russia took control of Crimea. Following taht, the Putin administration began targeting the Crimean Tatars, one of the three indigenous groups on the peninsula (who currently make up about 15% of Crimea's population). Activists who opposed the “referendum” and fought for their autonomy were kidnapped, tortured and falsely accused of being extremists and terrorists. Like in Stalin’s time, entire families were targeted for repression. Many Crimean Tatars were also sent to fight in the war against Ukraine. Human rights activists report that approximately 90% of draft notices in Crimea were handed out in areas where Crimean Tatars live in large numbers.

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  • “Every third family is in trouble”

  • “We were told, recognize the annexation and you'll have anything you want”

  • “They concoct cases from the comfort of their offices”

  • “They threatened inserting a pipe up my anus and feeding a barbed wire through it”

“Every third family is in trouble”

Zaur Khalilov (name changed for safety), a Crimean Tatar human rights activist, told the Insider: “I can’t recall a single month in the past nine years without searches taking place. This has become a regular occurrence in Crimea. The only respite for Crimean Tatars is during law enforcement officers’ vacation time around New Year’s when they can sleep peacefully knowing no one will come to their homes. For example, my phone is never switched off or into the quiet mode.”

On the morning before our conversation, FSB officers searched the home of Memet Ashurov in the Krasnogvardeysky District and the family home of Asan Abduramanov, a delegate to the Kurultai (the national congress of Crimean Tatars) in Bakhchisaray. Abduramanov himself had left Crimea several years earlier. The officers confiscated cell phones and other equipment during their search. Ashurov was taken to the FSB office in Simferopol for questioning but was later released. The reason for these actions was damage to a railroad near Pochtovoye village on February 23. This incident caused electric trains and train traffic to stop and was labeled as sabotage by authorities. Initially reported as an explosion, it was later suggested that a portable welding kit was used to damage the rails. Leonid Ivlev, a State Duma deputy from Crimea, commented on the incident via his Telegram channel: “In style - spoiling the holiday - it looks like the MO of Ukrainian fascists or their sympathizers. We can't rule out the existence of those who waits for the enemy, saboteurs, traitors, spies.” Since late February, searches have been conducted at several addresses where Crimean Tatars reside in relation to this incident.

Spoiling the holiday looks like the MO of Ukrainian fascists or their sympathizers

Throughout the nine years of Russian occupation, the search for “saboteurs, traitors and spies” among Crimea’s indigenous population has continued. A significant portion of this population has not recognized the annexation or accepted the new government. Crimean Tatars have consistently cooperated with Ukraine’s national-patriotic forces and supporting pro-Ukrainian candidates in elections is a “value issue” for them. Alim Aliyev, co-founder of human rights organization Crimea SOS, explained to The Insider:

“This is primarily due to historical memory - the first annexation and colonization of Crimea under Catherine the Great and the deportation of 1944. As a result, Crimean Tatars became the main pro-Ukrainian force in Crimea.”

Crimean Tatars make up around 13-15% of the total population of the peninsula, or about 250-300 thousand people. Since 2014, approximately 70,000 people have left Crimea and more than half of them were Crimean Tatars. Many left in the fall of 2022 after “partial” mobilization was announced. According to human rights organization “Crimea SOS,” about 90% of draft notices in Crimea were handed out in areas where Crimean Tatars live in large numbers. This is despite the fact that military conscription of residents in occupied territories is prohibited by the Geneva Convention. Alim Aliyev says: “The occupiers deliberately send them to war against their own country and their brethren who are now fighting in sufficient numbers in the AFU.”

The current repression of Crimean Tatars includes searches, interrogations, mass detentions, administrative arrests and fines, and fabricated criminal cases. This is comparable to the persecution experienced under tsarist and Soviet Russia. Religious and political figures, activists, citizen journalists and lawyers have all been targeted. Many are associated with the Crimean Solidarity human rights movement which was established in April 2016. The wife of one of the Crimean Tatar political prisoners spoke on condition of anonymity: “Since Crimean Tatars are a small people with strong horizontal ties, it can be said that every third family has been in trouble. There are close relatives among those imprisoned which means entire families are being repressed. Currently in Crimea there are 220 children growing up without fathers.”

There are close relatives among those imprisoned which means entire families are being repressed

Some families have experienced multiple visits from law enforcement officers over the years. A resident of Crimea, whose husband was also convicted by a Russian court, observed that during the initial visits, the officers behaved with restraint and “did not display any rudeness or cruelty.”

There are families that have survived more than one visit of law enforcement officers over the years. According to the observations of another resident of Crimea, whose husband was also convicted by a Russian court, at first they behaved restrainedly, “did not allow themselves rudeness and cruelty:

“In my view, in the past, they had limited knowledge about the FSB and its “operations.” However, presently, they display audacity and impoliteness by asserting their authority and unrestricted power. The second intrusion into our residence was considerably more violent. At dawn, over ten individuals in balaclavas armed with guns, scaled the gate, encircled the house, and created a commotion by shouting and banging, which frightened the children and put us under psychological duress.”

According to The Insider's interviewees, it is crucial for the occupying authorities to quash any displays of unity, self-governance, and individualism amongst the populace. Zaur Khalilov, a human rights advocate, cites the complete suppression of the right to peaceful assembly as one of the most palpable effects of the occupation on the Crimean Tatars. In his words, “Any mass gatherings are either dispersed or held under the control of officers of the E Center <the Main Department for Countering Extremism of the Russian Interior Ministry - The Insider>, and the FSB, who come 'in civilian clothes' and simply scatter among the people.”

The complete suppression of the right to peaceful assembly is one of the most palpable effects of the occupation

The commemorative events marking the anniversary of the deportation on May 18 and the Crimean Tatar flag day on June 26 are not exempt from this pattern. Law enforcement agencies classify them as extremist activities and, in anticipation of these events, issue “warnings about the inadmissibility of violating the law” to activists.

“We were told, recognize the annexation and you'll have anything you want”

In late February 2014, after the arrival of the so-called “polite people” from Russia on the Crimean peninsula, several thousand individuals marched to the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol in support of Ukraine's territorial integrity, responding to the Mejlis' call (the representative body of Crimean Tatars). The rally culminated in a clash with supporters of the pro-Russian Russian Unity party, led by Sergei Aksenov, who was then a local MP and is currently the head of the annexed republic. The riots resulted in the death of two individuals. A few weeks later, the Crimean Tatar population largely boycotted the “referendum” on Crimea's accession to Russia (with estimates ranging from 70 to 95 percent), and the Mejlis rejected its legitimacy.

The Mejlis, a representative body of Crimean Tatars, has not been forgiven by the new Crimean authorities for their defiance. Initially, its leaders Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov were accused of extremism by prosecutors and were banned from entering the peninsula. The body was then forcibly removed from the building it occupied in Simferopol, followed by the arrests of its members. Two of its deputy heads, Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov, were imprisoned, with the former receiving an eight-year sentence for organizing mass disturbances during the February 2014 rally, and the latter receiving a two-year sentence for “public calls for violation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.” However, in 2017, both were extradited to Turkey, ostensibly in exchange for two Russian individuals accused of espionage. Chiygoz and Umerov later relocated to Kyiv. The Crimean Tatar Mejlis received its final blow in April 2016 when the Crimean Supreme Court declared it an extremist organization, following a lawsuit by prosecutor Natalia Poklonskaya, who accused the agency of carrying out anti-Russian activities and labeled its leaders “puppets in the hands of big Western puppeteers.” Most of the Mejlis members fled to Ukraine, and the body now operates from exile.

Most the Mejlis members fled to Ukraine, and the body now operates from exile

In a 2016 interview with Kommersant, Nariman Dzhelyal, a prominent leader of the Mejlis, said, “We were told: acknowledge the fact of annexation publicly, and everything will work out for you. But we are an indigenous people of Crimea... We just want guaranteed participation in the administration of our territory.” He went on to say, “If Russia wants to compete for the support of the Crimean Tatars, it should consider such guarantees instead of continuing to persecute and imprison people for extremism and separatism. Otherwise, they should not count on the loyalty they desire.”

Despite the dangers, Dzhelyal remained in Crimea until the last moment, engaging in public activities and maintaining connections with Ukraine. He was the sole representative of annexed Crimea at the international summit “Crimea Platform” held in Kyiv in August 2021, despite the risks involved. Immediately after returning from the trip, Dzelyal was arrested. Along with the Akhtemov brothers, Asan and Aziz, he was accused of undermining a gas pipeline near Simferopol, causing one of the local military units to be without gas supply for a day. The investigation described Dzhelyal as the mastermind behind the “sabotage” and as a go-between for the Akhmetov brothers (who allegedly planted the explosive device under the gas pipeline) and “handlers” from the Ukrainian intelligence service. In September of last year, Dzhelyal was sentenced to 17 years in a strict regime colony, while the Akhtemov brothers were sentenced to 15 and 13 years, respectively. The case is widely believed to have been fabricated. According to head of Memorial's program to support political prisoners Sergei Davidis, “There is no evidence: neither that these people did it, nor that they were instructed by someone in Ukraine, let alone that Nariman Dzhelyal had anything to do with it. However, there are clear signs of pressure on the accused.”

“They concoct cases from the comfort of their offices”

Human rights advocates claim that since 2014, over 150 individuals have been detained on politically motivated grounds in Crimea, with the overwhelming majority of them being Crimean Tatars. Most of the criminal proceedings are associated with the activities of the Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Liberation Party), an Islamic religious and political organization. In 2003, the Russian Supreme Court labeled Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami a terrorist group without providing any persuasive evidence to support its ruling. Although the fundamentalist Hizb ut-Tahrir seeks to establish a global Islamic caliphate, it advocates for nonviolent methods to achieve its objective. According to the “Support to Political Prisoners. Memorial” initiative, which was established after the closure of the Memorial Human Rights Center, more than 330 individuals have been prosecuted under Russian law for their links to this group, including over one hundred in annexed Crimea. None of these cases demonstrate any signs of preparing for terrorist attacks or making terrorist threats.

More than 330 people have been prosecuted under Russian law for their links to Hizb ut-Tahrir

Hizb ut-Tahrir is not banned in Ukraine, as well as in most European countries, and before 2014 it was operating legally in Crimea, publishing a newspaper and organizing public events. “People [in Crimea] became criminals simply as a result of the occupation. Thus, we get double lawlessness,” according to Sergey Davidis. It is a violation of international law for the occupying party, Russia, to entirely revoke the existing criminal law at the time of the occupation and replace it with its own. Moreover, the Russian government has no right to detain Crimean residents outside of the peninsula, but this is precisely what is happening: Crimean residents are sent to detention centers and colonies thousands of kilometers away from their homes.

The initial case related to involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir was opened in the region in early 2015, which led to the conviction of four Sevastopol locals. The most recent verdict was announced on March 15 of this year: Ametkhan Abdulvapov, a Crimean citizen, was sentenced to 10.5 years in jail by the Southern District Military Court in Rostov-on-Don.

According to sources cited by The Insider, allegations of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir have become a convenient means of suppressing the civil activity of the Crimean Tatars and silencing those who oppose the occupation administration. In addition to charges related to actual involvement in or support of terrorist activities, such as those outlined in Parts 1 and 2 of Article 205.5 of the Criminal Code, defendants are often accused of preparing a violent seizure of power under Article 30 and Article 278 of the Criminal Code. Many have already been sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment, including up to 19 years in a strict regime colony. “By doing so, the police achieve several objectives at once - they intimidate people, remove human rights defenders and activists from the scene, and boast about how they're dismantling terrorist cells and preventing coups in the Russian Federation. They concoct these cases with ease from the comfort of their offices,” explains Ilyas Aminov (name changed), a lawyer in Crimea.

Typically, those accused of terrorism are usually tried in large groups, such as the “Second Simferopol case,” which began in spring 2019 and involves 29 individuals. Tragically, one of the accused, 60-year-old Dzhemil Gafarov, passed away in February of this year while in the Novocherkassk pre-trial detention center. Prior to his death, Gafarov and four other Crimean Tatars were sentenced to 13 years in a strict regime prison. Gafarov was a second-degree disabled individual, suffered from chronic kidney failure, and frequently complained about his poor health. In November of last year, he even suffered a heart attack. “His condition deteriorated every day. He had a constant burning sensation in his heart, headaches, and difficulty breathing, and he was no longer able to get up on his own,” Crimean Solidarity reported. Despite repeated pleas from lawyers for emergency hospitalization, the detention center administration refused to provide proper medical care to the political prisoner.

Those accused of terrorism are usually tried in large groups

The “terrorist cases” typically follow a consistent pattern: in the absence of tangible evidence, charges are based on the testimony of anonymous witnesses and audio recordings that were obtained through wiretaps of activists' private meetings held in homes or mosques. “These gatherings are called suhbets, and they are meant for Crimean Tatars to discuss religious and political topics. Then, these recordings are handed over to 'experts' who simply misconstrue everything and conclude that members of the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir organization held the secret meeting,” explains Ilyas Aminov. According to him, FSB officers or recruited agents, who are themselves under threat of criminal prosecution, play the role of secret witnesses and “buy” their freedom by providing evidence against others. Additionally, the security forces present banned religious literature, which they planted on the accused, as supplementary evidence.

The Special Services were able to gain complete control over mosques with the tacit approval of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Crimea (DUMK), led by Mufti Emirali Ablaev, who has openly taken a pro-Russian stance since the annexation. According to human rights activist Zaur Khalilov, the DUMK Council now consists of “individuals who have been vetted by the special services and have signed a document confirming that they do not engage in any opposition movements and are in agreement with the policies of the Crimean authorities.” In 2016, representatives of Crimean Tatar Muslim organizations in Kyiv announced the establishment of an alternative, pro-Ukrainian DUMK.

Following the outbreak of full-scale war, cases involving Hizb ut-Tahrir began to suddenly implicate a “Ukrainian trail”: now, Crimean “terrorists” are accused of having ties with “handlers” from Kyiv. For example, in late January, six Crimean Tatars were apprehended in the Dzhankoy district of the peninsula. According to investigators, they were disseminating terrorist ideology and recruiting local Muslims, coordinating their activities with associates from Ukraine.

“They threatened inserting a pipe up my anus and feeding a barbed wire through it”

In addition to the Russian legal system, Russian lawlessness has also taken root in Crimea. The confessions of individuals accused of terrorism, sabotage, and other alleged crimes are often obtained through threats, torture, and ridicule. It seems that the security forces also use coercion to recruit informants and persuade future “secret witnesses” to cooperate.

The Insider interviewed Rinat Paralamov, a programmer from the Nizhnegorsk district who is a victim of the Crimean siloviki's arbitrariness. Paralamov stated that although he was not a civil activist, he did attend court proceedings and helped to collect money to pay fines. In September 2017, FSB operatives searched his home, put a bag over his head and forcibly took him to a basement where they beat and demanded he incriminate people he didn't know. They then tortured him by wrapping duct tape around his arms and legs, attaching two wires to his exposed buttocks and administering electric shocks to him. Paralamov remembers this happening three times.

“At some point I lost consciousness. They splashed water in my face, I came to, but my mouth wouldn't shut and I couldn't speak, I just made noises. I was frightened, so were they.”

A “man in a military uniform” and a female doctor examined Rinat and gave him several injections. However, the torturers came to the conclusion that he was faking a seizure and continued to torture him with electric shocks.

“At that point, I believed that my ordeal was over and began to pray, but the interrogators resumed their demands for information. They threatened to subject me to further abuse, including inserting a pipe into my anus and feeding barbed wire through it. They also threatened to harm my family, including my parents, wife, and brothers. I relented and agreed to sign whatever documents they gave me. Among the papers were several blank sheets, which I simply signed at the bottom.”

Paralamov was then taken to another room where the bag was removed, and he was forced to confess on camera that in 2014 he had found TNT, bullets, and wires for them in a forest and buried them in the Maryina grove near Simferopol. In one of the papers he signed he also admitted that he had ties to Hizb ut-Tahrir and had “met certain people in the mosque.” The FSB officers told him he would now work for them by “walking among your countrymen and telling us everything you hear,” and threatened to use the signed papers against him, which could result in “dozens of years in prison.”

Rinat Paralamov was held by the FSB for more than a day, and when they obtained what they wanted from him, they dropped him off at a bus station with a warning not to speak about the incident. However, after recovering from the ordeal, he contacted his lawyers and decided to make his story public, but only after he moved to Kyiv with his family for safety. Despite efforts by his defenders in Crimea to bring charges against the torturers, they were unsuccessful, as no illegal actions by law enforcement officers were found by the prosecutors. In contrast, Paralamov was put on the wanted list for allegedly illegally storing explosives and ammunition. Like many Crimean Tatars, he hopes for the swift liberation of the peninsula:

“As soon as Russia, God willing, gets out of there, I'll come home.”

Likewise, Asan Akhtemov was coerced into confessing to the alleged “sabotage of the gas pipeline.” In early September 2021, approximately ten masked, armed men broke into his house late at night, handcuffed him without presenting any IDs, blindfolded him, and took him away. The Ukrainian newspaper Ґrati published a detailed report of Akhtemov's ordeal in the FSB's basement:

“They took me to a room, made me sit on a chair facing the back of the chair, and used duct tape to tie my legs to the legs of the chair and my hands to the back of the chair. As I was being led to the room, they kept threatening me with planting weapons and drugs on me, saying that my wife was beautiful and hinting that she could also be harmed.
After they made me sit on a chair and tied me up, they attached wires to my ears, after which I felt a strong electric shock. It lasted about ten seconds. The procedure was repeated six or seven times. Then they administered weaker electric shocks and talked to me at the same time. When they switched the electric current on, I was constantly twitching. After that, I agreed with everything those people told me. They were telling me that I blew up the gas pipe in Perevalnoye, that my brother Aziz Akhtemov had already told them everything, that they knew how we did it”.

Akhtemov, like Rinat Paralamov, was coerced into confessing on camera and then taken to the FSB office in Simferopol for official interrogation. During his time being tortured in the basement, Akhtemov claims that the court-appointed lawyer Oleg Glushko was present and urged him to submit to the demands of the law enforcement officers and confess guilt. Akhtemov couldn't bear it and asked him: “How can you, a lawyer, allow this?” Glushko replied that this was “standard procedure.” Later, Akhtemov's defense filed a complaint against Glushko, citing several instances in which he grossly violated the law on advocacy and the code of professional ethics. The Council of the Crimean Bar Association initially denied the allegations, but eventually initiated disciplinary proceedings against Glushko. However, they ultimately found no violations in his actions. According to human rights activist Zaur Khalilov, Glushko works closely with the FSB and is frequently involved in Crimean political cases; he even participated in the torture of Crimean Solidarity activist Raim Aivazov.

The forced disappearance of “dissenting” individuals and their relatives is another method used to intimidate the active members of Crimean society. “Crimea SOS” has reported that 15 people, mostly members of the Crimean Tatar community, have been missing due to abductions. There is no investigation into these cases, and lawyer Ilyas Aminov believes that the Russian siloviki or other “agents of the state” are responsible for these disappearances.

One of the most notable cases of forced disappearance was that of Ervin Ibragimov, a 31-year-old rising political figure from Bakhchisaray. On May 25, 2016, he was supposed to attend a trial related to a political case, but his car was found abandoned on the road the night before. Video footage from surveillance cameras showed individuals dressed as traffic police officers blocking Ibragimov's car, forcibly pushing him into a van, and taking him away. The video was handed over to law enforcement authorities, and a criminal case was initiated for kidnapping. However, the investigation did not progress, and was suspended in 2017. Ibragimov's father is convinced that the Russian secret services were responsible for his son's abduction. “FSB officers showed interest in whether my son was involved in boxing. Another officer tried to recruit him to work for them. When Ervin refused, the officer threatened him by saying, “Don't forget that you have a brother and sister.” So, you tell me who I can suspect,” Krym.Realii quotes Ibragimov Sr. as saying.

Islyam Dzhepparov and Dzhevdet Islyamov, son and nephew of a prominent activist of the Crimean Tatar national movement Abdureshit Dzhepparov, have been missing for over eight years. In September 2014, while walking on a sidewalk in a settlement near Belogorsk, largely populated by Crimean Tatars, they were forcefully taken by several individuals and put into a car with tinted windows. An eyewitness reported that the kidnappers were wearing black uniforms with stripes on the back. Together with the parents of other abductees, Abdureshit Dzhepparov had formed the Contact Group on Human Rights in Crimea, which collects information about violations against residents of the peninsula.

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