Crimean Tatars are among the most politically persecuted groups in Russia

Hardly a week that goes by without news about politically motivated criminal cases against Crimean Tatars, a nation whose motherland is the Crimea peninsula, a Ukrainian territory currently occupied by Russia.  

The history of Crimean Tatars of the last centuries is one of oppression and suffering.  

For a significant period from their emergence, the Crimean Tatars formed the majority of Crimea's population and were the largest ethnic group until the end of the 19th century. However, they faced persecution and forced resettlement at the hands of the Russian Empire between 1783 and 1900. While this did not result in the complete eradication of Crimean Tatar culture, the Soviet era saw their near-total expulsion from the Crimean peninsula, beginning with a mass deportation in 1944 that saw them relocated to Central Asia.

Crimean Tatars, Creative Commons use, Wikipedia [AN: link please]

In the decades that followed, some were permitted to return, and in 1989 the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union condemned their removal from Crimea as unlawful and inhumane. Only in 1989 was full right of return established as policy, and since 2014 the Crimean Tatars have been officially recognized as an indigenous people of Ukraine. The current occupational Russian administration disputes their status as indigenous people, referring to them instead as a “national minority”, and denies their claim as the titular people of Crimea.

Memorial, a human rights organization that was declared a foreign agent and subsequently shut down by a Russian court in April 2022, considers the Crimean Tatars, persecuted after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, political prisoners. In 2021, it highlighted that the Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), declared  “extremist” in Russia, does not have any terroristic or violent facts in its history.  Indeed, Ukraine recognizes the organization as legal. Yet most Crimean Tatars who are currently persecuted are accused by Russian authorities of belonging to HT. 

There is no evidence indicating that the HT has been involved in the activities of jihadist groups, states Memorial. It is worth noting that, apart from Russia, Uzbekistan is the only other country to have banned HT as a terrorist organization, but this decision was made in 2016, which is after the Russian Supreme Court's decision in 2003.

Although the program provisions of HT and the content on their websites are widely incompatible with the principles of democracy and human rights as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, HT's activities are legal in Western European democratic countries, with the exception of Germany, which has banned the organization due to its dissemination of anti-Semitic publications.

Memorial, therefore, asserts that the Supreme Court's decision to label HT as a terrorist organization is unjustified.

Memorial has further said that it believed that the persecution of individuals accused of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir in Crimea is unjust and politically motivated. The reasons behind this persecution, the organization said, were  closely linked to nationality, religious beliefs, and the ongoing armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine. This oppressive campaign, they highlighted,  was a  part of a broader effort by the authorities to repress the Crimean Tatar community, whom they consider political opponents, and Muslims who do not conform to the Russian government's preferred narrative.

Meanwhile, Islam is the second most important religion in Russia, with around 10 percent of the population following it.

The largest of the Tatar groups are the Volga Tatars, who primarily reside in the Volga-Ural region of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan in Russia. According to 2010 estimates, there were around 5.3 million ethnic Tatars living in the country.

Crimean Tatars are a separate group that originated on the Crimean peninsula, and at one point in time was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, which was later defeated by the Russian Empire in the 18th century. Crimean Khalifat was independent for seven years, but was annexed and remained a part of the Russian Empire till the creation of the Soviet Union. After the Bolsheviks gained control of Crimea, the region was established as an autonomous soviet republic within Russia.

The Soviet Union transferred Crimea to Ukraine on the 300th anniversary of the Pereyaslav Treaty in 1954.

Ukrainian Ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets, as reported by the Kyiv Independent, said that there are currently 180 Ukrainian political prisoners, including 116 Crimean Tatars, illegally held in Russia-occupied Crimea.

On January 11, 2023,  Radio Liberty reported that a Russian court has sentenced five Crimean Tatars — Alim Karimov, Seyran Murtaza, Erfan Osmanov, Dzhemil Gafarov, and Servet Gaziev — to 13 years in prison for their alleged involvement in terrorist activities in the so-called case of Crimean Muslims. 

As described by the OVD-Info human rights project, Crimean Tatars are under constant pressure of Russian authorities to this day.  For example, at least 34 activists coming to support the six jailed activists during court hearings in January 2023 were detained.

As  Current Time TV reported in January 2023, lawyer  Nilolay Polozov, said that Russian security forces detained and searched homes of six Crimean Tatars activists on January 24, 2023. They were denied lawyers. Polozov at the time believed that the FSB [Federal Security Service, a successor of the KGB] may be preparing another big case against the Crimean Tatars

In February 2023, there also appeared news about two activists who died in Russian detention facilities in February 2023. One of them, Dzhemil Gafarov, who was detained in annexed Crimea in 2019, was among those convicted in January 2023. According to the media reports, he was 60 years old and  sentenced to 13 years in prison.

Crimean journalist and activist Lutfiye Zudiyeva wrote on Twitter

Dzhemil Gafarov, a Crimean Tatar, passed away today. In January, he had reported experiencing burning pains in his heart. However, the response from the SIZO-5 facility in Rostov-on-Don, where Gafarov was being held at the time, was only received by his lawyer today, on the same day that Gafarov died. A few days prior to his death, Gafarov had been transferred to the pre-trial detention center in Novocherkassk. Another activist, Kostiantyn Shyrinh, who was 61 years old,  was sentenced to 12 years on the charge of “espionage” and  died in a penal colony in Russia earlier in February, reported the Kyiv Independent

Meduza, an independent Russian media outlet based in Latvia, recently published a detailed article about the nine-year-long persecution of Crimean Tatars by Russian authorities. The article shed light on the fact that in addition to facing criminal charges, the group was also disproportionately targeted for military conscription during Russia's invasion of Ukraine. According to estimates by human rights activists, about 90 percent of draft notices in Crimea were sent to Crimean Tatars. It remains unknown how many of them actually served on the front lines.

Meduza interviewed Tamil Tasheva, the representative of the Ukrainian president in Crimea (since the beginning of Russian invasion of Ukraine she works from Kyiv). She said:

The mobilization of Crimean Tatars by Russian authorities is another act of injustice against the indigenous Crimean Tatar population. Many Tatar activists have already faced persecution for their pro-Ukrainian stance, and now they are being forced to fight against their own country… This situation highlights the ongoing discrimination and marginalization faced by the Crimean Tatar community under Russian occupation.

There is a civic initiative project called Crimean Solidarity, which both acts as a media source about prosecution of Crimean Tatars and supports them in court and helps the families of the accused. It also keeps a list of political prisoners and a page about their children, including ways to support them.

Human rights activist Afize Karimova said in her interview to Meduza that only after the liberation of Crimea can real changes begin. In her opinion, it is true both for the Crimean Tatars and for other residents of Crimea, “who are citizens of Ukraine and are regularly subjected to pressure from the Russian authorities.”

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