(Berlin) – Russian authorities in Crimea have intensified persecution of Crimean Tatars, under various pretexts and with the apparent goal of completely silencing dissent on the peninsula, Human Rights Watch said today. Crimean Tatars are a Muslim ethnic minority indigenous to the Crimean Peninsula. Many openly oppose Russia’s occupation, which began in 2014.
“Russian authorities in Crimea have relentlessly persecuted Crimean Tatars for their vocal opposition to Russia’s occupation since it began in 2014,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “They have portrayed politically active Crimean Tatars as extremists and terrorists, forced many into exile, and ensured that those who choose to stay never feel safe to speak their mind.”
Since Russia’s occupation began, Russian authorities and their proxies have subjected members of Crimean Tatar community and their supporters, including journalists, bloggers, activists, and others to harassment, intimidation, threats, intrusive and unlawful searches of their homes, physical attacks, and enforced disappearances. Complaints lodged with authorities are not investigated effectively. Russia has banned Crimean Tatar media and organizations that criticized Russia’s actions in Crimea, including disbanding and proscribing the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar self-governing highest executive body.
In October 2017, Human Rights Watch researchers in Crimea documented criminal prosecutions for separatism against Crimean Tatars who had criticized Russia’s actions in Crimea, as well as new and ongoing baseless terrorism-related prosecutions. Researchers also documented detention and fines for Crimean Tatars who peacefully staged single-person pickets to protest the arrest and prosecution of other Tatars. Under Russian law people who want to picket individually are not required to seek official permission.
Since 2015, Russian authorities have arrested at least 26 people on charges of involvement with the Islamist movement Hizb ut-Tahrir, banned as a terrorist organization in Russia since 2003 but not proscribed in Ukraine, nor in most of Europe. They were arrested on charges of participating in or organizing a terrorist group, solely for acts – often in private – of expression, assembly, opinion, or religious and political belief that the Russian authorities claim constitute affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir. They face from five years to life in prison. The arrests are consistent with Russia’s practice of cracking down on Muslims who preach and study Islam outside official guidelines.
In several cases, Russian police and security services ill-treated people suspected or accused of separatist, extremist, or terrorist activities and denied them due process. In one case, a former detainee said security agents beat him and gave him electric shocks to coerce him to become an informant.
In October, Russian authorities brought separatism charges against Suleiman Kadyrov, a Crimean Tatar activist, for posting a comment on social media criticizing the occupation of Crimea. The charges came several weeks after a Russian court convicted a Crimean Tatar leader, Ilmi Umerov, on separatism charges stemming from a media interview in which he criticized Russian actions in Crimea, and sentenced him to two years in prison.
In September, a Russian court in Crimea sentenced another prominent Crimean Tatar leader, Akhtem Chiygoz, to eight years in prison on bogus charges of organizing “mass riots.”
On October 25, after negotiations between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Russian authorities allowed Chiygoz and Umerov to leave Crimea for Turkey. On October 27, they arrived in Kyiv.
Under international law, the Russian Federation is an occupying power in Crimea as it exercises effective control without the consent of the government of Ukraine, and there has been no legally recognized transfer of sovereignty to Russia.
On September 25, the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine released its first report on the human rights situation in Crimea, concluding that it “has significantly deteriorated under Russian occupation.”
Russian authorities, and their proxies, should immediately stop persecution of Crimean Tatars including under the pretext of combating terrorism and extremism, cease all unjustified interference with freedom of association and assembly in Crimea, and ensure prompt, effective, and impartial investigations into all allegations of abuses perpetrated by law-enforcement against Crimean Tatars. Russian and Ukrainian authorities should ensure unfettered access to Crimea for independent human rights groups as well as humanitarian and intergovernmental organizations.
The UN Human Rights Office, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and the Council of Europe should continue to document and publicly report on the human rights situation in Crimea and urge Russian authorities to address both ongoing and past abuses. Russia’s international partners, including the European Union and its member states, Turkey, and the US should continue to call for the release of detained Crimean Tatar activists and for an end to the harassment and arbitrary actions against the Crimean Tatar community.
“It is good news that Chiygoz and Umerov are no longer at risk, but it’s also outrageous that they have had to go into exile to bring their ordeal to an end, and that others in Crimea remain incarcerated,” Williamson said. “Russia’s international partners need to press the Kremlin and Crimean authorities end the persecution of the Crimean Tatar community.”
Human Rights Watch researchers spoke with Crimean Tatar leaders and family members, lawyers, journalists, and others in Crimea in late October in the cities of Simferopol, Krasnogvardeyskoe, Belogorsk, and Yalta. Interviewees received no compensation and were fully informed of the purpose of the interview and on how Human Rights Watch would use the information they provided.
Prosecutions for Alleged Involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir
Since 2015, Russian authorities in Crimea have charged at least 26 people, most of them Crimean Tatars, with participating in or organizing a terrorist group because of their alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Hizb ut-Tahrir, established in 1953, is an international Islamist movement that seeks to establish a worldwide caliphate based on Sharia, but publicly denounces violence as a means to achieve its goal. In 2003, Russia banned Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organization. Hizb ut-Tahrir is not banned in Ukraine or in most of Europe, but is in Germany, and several former Soviet republics, including Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as China, Egypt, and most Arab countries. The European Court of Human Rights has held that bans on Hizb ut-Tahrir in Germany and Russia do not violate the European Convention on Human Rights.
According to Sova Center, a prominent Russian think tank, as of February, 47 people were serving prison terms in Russia for alleged involvement in the movement. In its 2016 report, Sova Center highlighted Russian authorities’ and courts’ practice of charging and convicting people solely for studying, distributing religious literature, or participating in discussions on religious topics linked to Hizb ut-Tahrir.
In the past several years, Memorial Human Rights Center has designated 40 people sentenced for involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir in Russia as political prisoners.
Prior to the occupation, although Ukrainian authorities did not ban Hizb ut Tahrir, in Crimea they kept lists of suspected followers. Some of those Human Rights Watch interviewed believed the Russian authorities used these lists to identify and prosecute Crimean Tatars for involvement in the organization.
In 25 of the cases of arrests documented, the terrorism-related charges were based solely on the suspects’ alleged association with Hizb ut-Tahrir. In no case was the suspect accused of involvement in planning, carrying out, or otherwise being an accessory to, any act of violence.
Some of the detainees do not deny some level of affiliation with Hizb-ut-Tahrir, but all deny any involvement in a terrorist organization. Under Russian law, participation in a terrorist group (article 205.5, part 2 of the Russian Criminal Code) is punishable by a prison sentence of 5 to 10 years. Punishment for organizing the activities of a terrorist group (part 1 of article 205.5) ranges from 15 years to life.
In all the cases documented, law enforcement agents searched suspects’ homes, confiscating computer equipment, telephones, flash drives, and other data storage, and Islamic literature, then detained them allegedly on suspicion of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Activists and lawyers working on behalf of those detained told Human Rights Watch that most of the evidence investigators presented consists of video or audio recordings of meetings in people’s apartments at which people discussed interpretations of the Quran or their disagreements with Russia’s actions in Crimea; possession of religious literature; and meetings, conversations, and other actions allegedly aimed at recruiting new members.
The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) reported that it had identified and eliminated Hizb ut-Tahrir cells in Yalta, Bakhchisarai, Simferopol, and Sevastopol. In each town, authorities detained on average four to six people, charging one person as a leader of a cell and the others as members.
In addition to the cases documented, in August 2016, a citizen of Kyrgyzstan, Akhmatzhon Abdulaev, was arrested in Crimea. According to Crimea SOS, a Ukrainian rights group monitoring the human rights situation in Crimea, authorities charged him with abetting terrorist activity and participation in Hizb ut-Tahrir and he is in pretrial detention in Simferopol.
Bakhchysarai- October 11, 2017
On October 11, 2017, at about 6 a.m., FSB agents searched the homes of six Crimean Tatars in Bakhchysarai, a city in central Crimea. They did not present a warrant.
After the searches, the authorities arrested Timur Ibragimov, Memet Belyalov, Server Zekeryayev, Seyran Saliyev, Ernest Ametov, and Marlen (Suleyman) Asanov, all of whom a court sent to pretrial custody for two months pending the investigation. Crimea SOS reported that Asanov was eventually charged with allegedly organizing a Hizb-ut-Tahrir “terrorist” cell, and the other five men, with alleged involvement in it. All deny the charges.
Zair Smedlyaev, a Crimean Tatar leader and a member of Kurultai, the elected council of the Crimean Tatar community, who monitored the developments around the searches, told Human Rights Watch that some of those subjected to the searches are devout Muslims and that all are also outspoken critics of Russia’s occupation of Crimea.
Emil Kurbedinov, a lawyer representing Asanov, told Human Rights Watch that during Asanov’s initial interrogation, the authorities claimed that he was involved in “anti-Russian” activities. On October 25, the authorities formally charged him with organizing a “terrorist cell” in Bakhchysarai.
Authorities committed several procedural violations in the arrests and searches. Two lawyers told Human Rights Watch that they were unable to observe the searches because security services and riot police blocked off the area and denied them entry, even after they said they were there to represent their clients. Kurbedinov said the authorities failed to present the necessary arrest and other procedural documents in a timely manner.
Alexey Ladin, another lawyer representing one of the detainees, told media that during interrogations, the security officials claimed the criminal charges were based on two audio recordings of conversations between those arrested. He said the conversations concerned various interpretations of the Quran and other religious topics, but none related to violence or any other criminal activity.
Kurbedinov said that Asanov is a successful businessman and an active supporter of a group called Crimea Solidarity. Created in 2016, the group includes Crimean Tatar activists, family members, lawyers, and human rights defenders and supports Crimean Tatars persecuted by the authorities. Kurbedinov said that Asanov on several occasions provided a venue for the group’s meetings.
Renat Paralamov is a Crimean Tatar who worked as a trader at a local market in Nizhnegorskiy. In September, security services detained him on suspicion of involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir and allegedly tortured him to coerce him into becoming an informant. On September 13, 2017, a group of masked men in Nizhnegorskiy searched the house where he lived with his family. They said that they needed to search for “weapons and drugs.” During the search, they seized Paralamov’s laptop and tablet, as well as his mother-in-law’s book on Islam.
After the search, the men put Paralamov in a van and drove off.
For more than 24 hours, his family and lawyer had no contact with him or information about his whereabouts. Paralamov’s lawyer and a group of activists called and visited police and FSB departments in Nizhnegorskiy and Simferopol asking about him, but got no answers as to his whereabouts or even a confirmation of his arrest. On the morning of September 14, a policeman told Paralamov’s family and friends, who had gathered outside a Nizhnegorskiy police station, that the local FSB department had released Paralamov the day before, but that he “voluntarily” went back to “provide further answers” to the authorities’ questions.
At around about 12:30 pm on September 14, Paralamov called his family from a bus station in Simferopol. He said he had been badly beaten, and was shaken and unable to walk. Paralamov’s family took him to a hospital in Simferopol to document his injuries, which included multiple hematomas and bruises.
At the end of September, Paralamov managed to leave Crimea with his family. After he arrived in Kyiv, he spent 15 days in a hospital to get treatment for his injuries.
During a news conference in Kyiv in early November, Paralamov described his detention and torture. He said that after the FSB took him to the station, they put a bag over his head, put tape over his mouth, and tortured him with electric shocks. They also punched him in the chest and hit him on the back of his head. When he asked for a lawyer, an FSB agent punched him in the chest and told him, “I’m your lawyer.”
Paralamov said the FSB agents asked him about his involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir and demanded that he become an informant, attend Crimean Tatars’ gatherings, collect information, and pass it on to the authorities. They also forced him to sign a document claiming that he left the FSB station in Simferopol on September 13 and voluntarily returned to confess to involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir and that he voluntarily agreed to “cooperate” with the FSB.
Paralamov said that the next day, the authorities took him to a forest, where they made him repeat his confession on camera. The authorities told Paralamov that if he cooperated, he would get a three-year conditional sentence rather than real prison time and told him to not use a Crimean lawyer but the lawyer that they would provide.
On February 11, 2016, the FSB searched 11 homes of Crimean Tatars in Yalta and surrounding towns. Edem Semedlyaev, a lawyer representing one of the suspects, said that law-enforcement officials knocked down doors and broke windows in several houses.
Following house searches, the FSB detained 14 people. Ten were released the next day and four were arrested: Emir-Usein Kuku, Enver Bekirov, and Vadim Siruk on suspicion of participating in Hizb ut-Tahrir, and Muslim Aliev for allegedly organizing a local Hizb ut-Tahrir cell. All are also charged under article 278 of the Russian Criminal Code for actions directed at the “violent takeover of power”. Two months later, police in Yalta arrested two other men, Refat Alimov and Arsen Dzhepparov, for alleged participation as well. All six have been in custody awaiting trial since their arrest.
In October 2016, prison doctors, saying they were assessing the six detainees’ mental health condition, questioned them about their religious practices and political views. Because all six refused to answer, they were forcibly placed in a psychiatric hospital in November 2016 for three to four weeks for evaluation. The authorities said they found no problems with the men’s mental health and that they were therefore accountable for their actions.
Family members of one of those in custody, Aliev, told Human Rights Watch that at about 7 a.m. on February 11, about 10 heavily armed and masked men came to search the house. The men did not present a search warrant or any identification and refused Aliev’s request for a lawyer. They forced Aliev, who did not resist, to lie on the floor face down in front of his wife and children and told the family that they were looking for weapons and prohibited literature. They brought two witnesses for the search. When Aliev’s wife asked if they could invite neighbors to witness the search instead, the armed men refused.
The men behaved aggressively toward Aliev’s wife and children. One asked Aliev’s 12-year-old son: “Who do you want to be when you grow up? Do you want to be like us and take down people like your father?” One of the men picked up the Quran from the table and threw it on the floor. When Aliev’s wife attempted to pick it up, the man kicked it away.
During the search, the authorities seized three bags of books, including children’s books, as well as Aliev’s computer and cell phone. They eventually returned the books and the computer.
Emir-Usein Kuku, another of those in custody, is a human rights activist and a member of the Contact Human Rights Group, founded in October 2014 to pressure Russian authorities in Crimea to investigate abuses. Authorities briefly detained him in April 2015, questioned him in November 2015, and repeatedly attempted to recruit him as an informant, an offer which he refused and spoke about publicly.
In September 2016, the prosecutor’s office in Crimea launched an investigation alleging that Kuku was neglecting his parental duties. In October 2016, a local police inspector made several attempts to meet with Kuku’s children, 5 and 9, while they were at school without adults present, and on one occasion when he was able to, he asked Kuku’s 9-year-old son questions that implied his father was neglecting his parental duties while in detention.
Dzhemil Temishev, a lawyer representing Dzhepparov, another of the six detainees, told Human Rights Watch that between April and May 2016, prison administration refused to provide him with necessary medical assistance for an ongoing health problem requiring surgery. After Temishev repeatedly complained, Dzhepparov was eventually hospitalized and underwent surgery. In May 2017, Dzhepparov’s health deteriorated again but the authorities again refused to provide him with needed medical treatment, Temishev said. Temishev also said that prison authorities placed Dzepparov in solitary confinement twice for a total of 16 days under arbitrary pretexts, such as refusing to shave his beard or not opening the cell door fast enough.
Bakhchysarai – May 2016
Four residents of Bakhchysarai were arrested on May 12, 2016, and charged with membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir. They are Rustem Abiltarov, Zevri Abseitov, Remzi Memtov, and Enver Mamutov.
Police arrested all four following searches of five houses and a café in Bakhchysarai. Mamutov is accused of organizing and leading a cell, and the rest, with involvement in it. A former Russian prosecutor in Crimea stated that the detained men allegedly carried out “unconstitutional activity in the form of the propaganda work among the population.” All four remain in custody, pending the investigation.
In October 2016, police arrested Aider Saleidinov, Rustem Ismailov, Uzair Abdullayev, Teimur Abdullaev, and Emil Dzhemadenov, after a wave of house searches in the city of Simferopol. Abullayev was accused of organizing a Hizb ut-Tahrir cell, and the four others of participation in it. All five have remained in custody, pending the investigation.
In December 2016, Saledinov, Ismailov, and Uzair Abdullaev said, FSB officers beat them while in transit to investigative facilities. In February 2017, Saledinov and Ismailov were sent for psychiatric evaluations at a hospital to determine the state of their mental health at the time of their alleged criminal acts. Kurbedinov, the lawyer, said that Teimur Abdullaev was placed in an isolation ward in March 2017 for writing a letter in Crimean Tatar language.
In January 2015, police in Sevastopol arrested Ruslan Zeitullayev, Ferat Saifulaeyev, Rustem Vaitov, and Nuri Primov. Zeitullayev was charged with organizing a Hizb ut-Tahrir cell, and the others with participation.
On September 7, 2016, a military court in Rostov-on-Don in Russia, convicted all four men on charges of participation in a terrorist organization and sentenced Vaitov, Primov, and Saifulayev to five years in prison, and Zeitullayev to seven.
Following the prosecutor’s appeal that Zeitullayev should have been convicted for “organizing” not just “participation in” a terrorist group, on December 27, Russia’s Supreme Court sent his case for retrial. The prosecution asked for a more severe charge and sentence because it considered Zeitullayev the leader of the Hizb ut-Tahrir group in Sevastopol.
At retrial, in April 2017, the court sentenced Zeitullayev to 12 years in a maximum-security prison for organizing a terrorist group. The prosecutor's office again appealed the verdict, demanding an 18-year sentence. In July, Russia’s Supreme Court changed Zeitullayev’s prison sentence to 15 years. The verdict, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, said that the case against him was built on testimony by a secret witness; conversations with others about prosecutions against Hizb ut-Tahrir members and criticism of the media; and the alleged possession of brochures, leaflets, and other Hizb ut-Tahrir publications.
In September 2017, all four men were transferred to various regions of Russia to serve their prison terms. Memorial Human Rights Center recognized them as political prisoners.
On October 18, 2017, following a year-long investigation, Russia’s security services charged Crimean Tatar activist Suleyman Kadyrov, 55, with separatism (article 280.1, part 2, of Russia’s criminal code). Kadyrov is a former Mejlis member.
One of Kadyrov’s lawyers, Alexey Ladin, told Human Rights Watch that in April, Russia’s Federal Financial Monitoring Service included him in its official list of “active terrorists and extremists.”
The criminal charges stem from comments Kadyrov made in March 2016 when he re-posted another user’s Crimea-related video on his Facebook page. The comment said: “Suleyman Kadyrov agrees! Crimea is Ukraine. Always has been, always will be. Many thanks to the author of the video! I support it!”
Kadyrov is at liberty, awaiting trial.
Arrests for Single-Person Pickets
The Crimean authorities refuse Crimean Tatars’ requests to hold peaceful gatherings under arbitrary pretexts and crack down on spontaneous protests. Between August and October 2017, authorities detained dozens and fined at least 10 Crimean Tatars for exercising their right to protest peacefully. They included people who held single-person pickets, including to protest the trials of Crimean Tatar leaders and security service searches of Crimean Tatars’ homes.
On August 8, Simferopol police detained 76-year-old Sever Karametov, who was picketing in front of the Crimea Supreme Court building in Simferopol to protest the trial of Akhtem Chiygoz. Three police officers approached Karametov and ordered him to follow them. When he insisted on remaining, they grabbed him and forcibly led him away. Karametov’s lawyer said he had been diagnosed with advanced Parkinson’s disease. On August 9, a judge refused to order a medical exam for Karametov, swiftly found him guilty of resisting police orders, and sentenced him to 10 days in prison, which he served. The court also fined Karametov 10,000 rubles (approximately US$165.)
On October 11, authorities in Bakhchysarai detained nine activists who were recording the searches of the homes of those suspected of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir and live streaming them on social media. Authorities charged them with participating in an unauthorized public gathering that led to disrupting public order, a misdemeanor. A lawyer present when the men were detained told the media that police struck several of the activists while transporting them to the police station.
In court hearings the same day, all nine were found guilty and fined for various amounts of up to 15,000 rubles (approximately US$261), for a total amount of 135,000 rubles (approximately US$2,350).
On October 14, more than 100 Crimean Tatars participated in single-person pickets at different locations around Crimea, protesting the October 11 arrests. The protesters stood along Crimea’s highways, holding up signs demanding an end to the persecution of Crimean Tatars. According to media reports, the police detained at least 49 people for conducting single-person pickets. In a video statement uploaded to his Facebook page, Rustem Kyamilev, a Crimean lawyer who monitored the arrests, said that the police pressured those detained to be fingerprinted and denied them access to a lawyer. All were released the same day without charge.
In the following days, most of the activists detained on October 14 were summoned to their local police stations, Zair Smedlyaev told Human Rights Watch. The activists told Smedlyaev that during questioning the police pressed them for details about those organizing the October 14 protests, including asking who told them to participate in the protests and who prepared the signs for them.
As an occupying power, Russia should respect, unless absolutely prevented from doing so, Ukrainian laws that were in force in Crimea when it commenced its occupation. However, Russia rejects its status as an occupying power and applies its federal laws to Crimea, including criminalizing activity not previously criminalized on the peninsula. This notwithstanding, all relevant human rights treaties, including the European Convention on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention against Torture, apply in Crimea and all authorities, whether they are Russian or Crimean acting under Russian authority are bound by these treaties.
Russia is bound to respect the rights of Crimean residents, including those of freedom of opinion, expression, assembly and association, and religion, freedom from arbitrary detention and ill-treatment including torture, and rights to fair trial, due process, and privacy. The Russian actions against Crimean Tatars that Human Rights Watch documented violate these rights and in total may be considered to amount to a policy of persecution against Crimean Tatars.
While it may fall within Russia’s discretion to proscribe Hizb ut-Tahrir and designate it as a terrorist organization, that does not give Russian authorities carte blanche to use the criminal law as a tool to suppress non-violent opposition, criticism or protest. Any and all application of the criminal law must comport with international standards on due process and focus on criminal conduct, not be used to punish exercise of basic rights such as free speech, assembly, and opinion.
The evidence against the Crimean Tatars prosecuted is not that they engaged in, advocated, or aided and abetted acts of violence. Rather the evidence presented against those accused of involvement in a terrorist organization is primarily discussions during meetings, often in private apartments, on interpretations of the Quran or Russia’s actions in Crimea, or possession of religious literature. The prosecution on terrorism charges of Crimean Tatars for non-violent speech and, in particular, the equating of speech with acts of terrorism or extremism, is an unjustified interference with freedom of opinion, expression and religion.