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(Berlin) – At least seven people have been forcibly disappeared or gone missing in Crimea since May 2014, including two on September 27, Human Rights Watch said today. Five are Crimean Tatars and two are pro-Ukraine activists. Crimean Tatars have generally openly opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March. Two other Crimean Tatars who appeared not to have political ties have gone missing in recent days. The body of one was found hanged on October 6. De-facto authorities in Crimea should promptly and thoroughly investigate these cases and bring those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said.

“The disappearances are contributing to the atmosphere of fear and hostility in Crimea for anyone who is pro-Ukraine, including Crimean Tatars,” said Yulia Gorbunova, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The de-facto authorities need to investigate all potential leads in these disappearances, including whether paramilitary groups or Russian security forces were behind them.”

In the past six months the de-facto authorities have steadily increased pressure on some members of the Crimean Tatar community. The authorities have issued several warnings to Mejlis, the body that represents Crimean Tatars with the authorities and international community, over what were called “extremist” activities, including flying a Ukrainian flag at the Mejlis office.

The authorities threatened to dissolve Mejlis and searched and sealed its office in September. They have banned the former and the current Mejlis leaders from entering Crimea for five years, one in April and the other in July. In August and September, authorities conducted dozens of intrusive searches in mosques, schools, and private homes of Crimean Tatars, claiming to be looking for weapons, drugs, and “prohibited literature.”

On September 27, two young Crimean Tatar cousins disappeared after being seen bundled into a minivan by two men in black uniforms. During the last week of May, three activists with a pro-Ukraine group, one of them a Crimean Tatar, disappeared within several days of each other. The families of two of them said they had hostile encounters with the “self-defense” units in March.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented other abuses by Crimean “self-defense” and paramilitary forces across Crimea, including attacks on and abductions of pro-Ukrainian activists and said that the Crimean authorities should disarm and disband these units and prosecute those responsible for abuses. Human Rights Watch documented the forced disappearance of seven people in Crimea in March; six were eventually freed, but the body of one, a Crimean Tatar from Simferopol region, was found 13 days after his abduction bearing marks of violent death.

“The authorities need to find out what happened to these men,” Gorbunova said. “As one person after another falls out of sight without any resolution of the cases, it sends the message to those responsible that they can continue to act with impunity.”

Abductions of Islyam Dzhepparov and Dzhevdet Islyamov
On September 27, Islyam Dzhepparov, 18 and his cousin, Dzhevdet Islyamov, 23, both Crimean Tatars, disappeared from the village of Saryi-Su, near the town of Belogorsk. Dzhepparov’s father, Abdureshit, told Human Rights Watch that the young men were last seen on a road near Belogorsk being forced into a minivan.

The father said that on the evening of September 27, the young men went to visit Islyam’s uncle, who lives in the area. At around 7 p.m., a family friend told the father that as the friend was driving home on the road outside Saryi-Su, he saw two men in black uniforms frisk the two young men, then push them into a blue minivan with tinted windows and drive off. The witness said that the men had been “fast and professional.” The father called the police, who came and questioned him and the witness about the disappearance.

Abdureshit Dzhepparov is a well-known member of the Crimean Tatar community, a former delegate to Kurultai, the elected council of the Crimean Tatar community, and a former member of Mejlis.

He told Human Rights Watch that in the days following his son’s disappearance, hundreds of Crimean Tatars from other regions of Crimea came to his house to show support. On October 1, Sergey Aksyonov, the de-facto prime minister of Crimea, visited Saryi-Su and met with him and several other representatives of Crimean Tatar community. Aksyonov assured the relatives that the authorities were doing their best to investigate all the disappearances and denied any involvement of the so-called “self-defense units.”

Abdureshit told Human Rights Watch, however, that in August and September, the authorities had steadily intensified pressure on Crimean Tatars in his neighborhood and conducted invasive searches for “prohibited literature,” drugs, and weapons in private homes, mosques, and schools:

Dozens of people in masks with automatic weapons come at the break of dawn, sometimes tell the whole family to lie down facing the floor and turn their houses upside down. It happened to some of my neighbors. I don’t know what their motives are. All I know is that today in Crimea it is dangerous to be a Crimean Tatar.

Disappearances of Leonid Korzh, Timur Shaimardanov and Seiran Zinedinov
The Crimean Field Mission, a human rights monitoring group in Simferopol, reported that on May 22, colleagues and relatives lost contact with Leonid Korzh, 24, a member of a pro-Ukraine activist group Ukrainsky Narodny Dom (Ukrainian People’s Home). On May 25, one of the leaders of the group, Timur Shaimardanov, spoke about Korzh’s disappearance at a meeting with a pastor from the Salvation Army in Simferopol.

The next day, Shaimardanov, a 34 year old entrepreneur, left his house in the morning to go to work and was not seen again. Shaimardanov’s wife, Olga Shaimardonova, told Human Rights Watch that her husband told her he was going to the bank and would pick up their eight-year-old son from school at noon. She said that she called her husband at 11 a.m. but that his phone was switched off. She was not able to contact him after that. His relatives’ further attempts to locate him, including through a police investigation, were unsuccessful.

Shaimardanov’s family reported his disappearance to the police on May 27, but the criminal investigation into his disappearance was initiated only on July 9. Shaimardanov’s sister told Human Rights Watch that when she met with one of the investigators in late July, he asked her questions about Shaimardanov’s religious beliefs, whether he could read the Quran and knew how to shoot a gun, and whether she was “familiar with any extremist organizations.” When Shaimardanov’s sister asked why this was relevant, the investigator implied that Shaimardanov could have gone to eastern Ukraine to fight against insurgents there.

On May 30, another member of the Ukrainian People’s Home, Seiran Zinedinov, a 33-year-old Crimean Tatar and father of three, also disappeared. His relatives and other activists told Human Rights Watch that Zinedinov had been trying to locate Shaimardanov.

Zinedinov’s mother, Elvira Zinedinova, told Human Rights Watch that on Zinedinov and his wife were at Zinedinova’s home in the village of Stroganovka in the Simferopol region on May 30. At about 7:40 p.m., Seiran said he needed to step outside to speak with Shaimardanova about her husband’s disappearance. Zinedinova said her son left the house in just what he had been wearing and did not bring his wallet, passport, or driver’s license with him. Half an hour later, Zinedinov called his wife, told her that he was walking back to the house and asked her to start dinner. But he did not return and did not answer his phone when his wife called him later that evening.

Shaimardanova later told Zinedinov’s relatives that she and Zinedinov had a brief conversation on the road just outside the entrance to the village, approximately 300 m from Zinedinov’s house. She said that Zinedinov told her he had reasons to believe that Crimean “self-defense” units were involved in her husband’s disappearance. The conversation lasted 20 minutes, after which Shaimardanova left in her car and Zinedinov headed home on foot.

Shaimardanov’s family told Human Rights Watch that both Shaimardanov and Zinedinov had hostile encounters with the “self-defense” units in March and that Shaimardanov told his relatives he was being followed several days before he disappeared.

Zinedinov’s relatives reported his disappearance to the police on the morning of May 31, but the police started a criminal investigation only two months later. The relatives told Human Rights Watch that before the investigation began, the lead investigator on the case had been replaced 10 times. Zinedinova also said the investigator called Zinedinov’s family the first week in October to report that there has been no progress in the investigation:

The investigators asked a lot of questions about my son’s activism and how he felt about Russia but did not present a single piece of information about how or why he disappeared. It’s been four months and I know nothing. His daughter was born in July and he has never even met her.

Edem Asanov and Eskender Apselyamov
Human Rights Watch documented two cases of young Crimean Tatar men who went missing, although it is not clear whether their disappearance is in any way related to paramilitary, “self-defense,” or other groups. Asanov, 25, went missing on his way to work on September 29. Asanov’s sister, Feride, said that he was not politically active although he had occasionally discussed on his social network Vkontakte page issues related to the situation of Crimean Tatars. The sister said that Asanov left his home in Saki at 8.30 a.m. to take the bus to Evpatoria, a resort town approximately 22 km away where he worked as a lifeguard at a spa.

His relatives said that an acquaintance saw Asanov later that morning at a bus station in Evpatoria. But his employer said he never arrived at work, and when Asanova’s relatives tried calling him during the day, his phone was switched off. His relatives’ efforts to locate him were unsuccessful. In the evening of September 29, Asanov’s family reported him missing to the local police, who started an investigation.

On October 6, police found Asanov’s body hanged in an abandoned building in Evpatoria. The circumstances surrounding his death are unclear.

Eskender Apselyamov, 23, disappeared on October 3. Relatives told Human Rights Watch that Apselyamov left his apartment at around 5:30 p.m. to go to work, but never arrived. He was last seen at around 6 p.m. at a convenience store approximately 400 meters from his work buying cigarettes. His relatives’ attempts to locate him were unsuccessful. The police have started an investigation.

Relatives of both men said that neither they nor the young men were politically active, and Human Rights Watch has not found any reason suggesting why they might have been targeted. But given the disturbing trend of abductions of and threats to Crimean Tatars over the last few months, the circumstances under which they went missing should be thoroughly investigated.

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