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Law enforcement officials during the search in Emil Kurbedinov’s office, Bakhchysarai, Crimea, January 26, 2017. © 2017 Anton Naumlyik (RFE/RL)

(Berlin) – Russia’s arrest on March 27 and 28, 2019 of 23 Crimean Tatar activists was an unprecedented move to intensify pressure on a group largely critical of Russia’s occupation of the Crimean Peninsula, Human Rights Watch said today. Russian authorities should drop the charges, release the activists, and, until they are freed, immediately give them access to their lawyers.

The detainees, all men, are being held on suspicion of participating in a “terrorist organization,” several of their lawyers told Human Rights Watch.

“The sweeping arrests in Crimea aim to portray politically active Crimean Tatars as terrorists as a way to silence them,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This has been their approach for several years, and it should stop. These men should be released at once.”

The recent arrests are part of a larger wave of repression against the Crimean Tatars, many of whom have been critical of Russia’s occupation of Crimea, Human Rights Watch said.

Russia’s Federal Security Service said in a statement on March 27 that it had detained 20 men in Crimea who are suspected of involvement in the pan-Islamist movement Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation). Russia banned Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organization in 2003 but the group operates legally in Ukraine and much of Europe. The other three men were arrested in a Russian city, but as part of the same operation, and one man has been charged in absentia and is wanted by Russian law enforcement.

Courts placed the 23 men in pretrial detention until further hearings on May 15. Five have been charged with organizing activities of a terrorist organization, while 19, including the man not in custody, are charged with participating in such a terrorist organization.

Lawyers for the 23 detained men said that they had not been able to contact their clients for four days after the custody hearings. They later discovered that the men had been transported to Rostov-on-Don, a city in Russia 500 kilometers, or 10 hours by car and ferry, from Simferopol, the Crimean capital, where most had been detained.

Two lawyers said they had been able to visit their clients in Rostov-on-Don on April 1. They said they had not been officially informed of the men’s whereabouts and instead had managed to find them via the families of other detainees. They said their clients were being held in isolation, under constant video surveillance, and were unable to contact lawyers or relatives. Lawyers for the rest of the men also had not been informed of their whereabouts.

Crimean Tatars, a Muslim ethnic minority indigenous to the peninsula, have been targets of persecution since Russia began occupying the region in 2014. The recent arrests were the largest number in a single week for the last few years.

Fourteen of the men were active participants in a group called Crimean Solidarity, established in 2016 to support Crimean Tatars arrested or prosecuted on politically motivated grounds. The group, which met monthly and had about 150 regular participants, helped organize legal support for detainees, provided financial and social support for their families, and live streamed court proceedings, police searches, and raids.

The other 10 were not active participants in the group but had been involved with some of its activities, including attending trials and delivering care packages to those in prison.

Human Rights Watch spoke to several members of Crimean Solidarity, who said the authorities had pressured the group since early 2017. At least three activists from Crimean Solidarity have been held since their arrests in 2018 on charges of participating in or spreading propaganda about a terrorist organization, and at least eight of those arrested in March had previously been arrested or detained, or their homes had been raided.

“Every two months there has been some new kind of pressure on the people whom evidently [the authorities] considered to be the leaders [of Crimean Solidarity],” said Luftiye Zudieva, a member of the group.

Among those arrested in March was 38-year-old Tofik Abdulgaziev, a fabric dealer who is being held on suspicion of participating in a terrorist group. He had been active in Crimean Solidarity from its early days and regularly brought care packages to prisoners. An enthusiastic musician, Abdulgaziev had helped the group organize musical events and competitions for children whose parents were arrested or detained.

Abdulgaziev’s wife, Aliye, said that in 2017 armed men without insignia had raided and briefly searched the family's home, but left without finding anything or taking further legal action. “Just as they were leaving, [the lead investigator] smiled at Tofik and said, ‘Tofik: don't misbehave,’” she said.

Riza Izetov, 40, a repairman held on suspicion of organizing activities of a terrorist organization, had also been active in Crimean Solidarity since its founding, live streaming and writing on social media about detentions or house raids, attending court proceedings, and helping families visit their loved ones in prison or deliver care packages there, his wife said. He had been detained or arrested at least four times since 2015, and his house was searched in 2017.

Defense lawyers said that when presenting evidence as the basis for the charges, the judge said that the men were secretly recorded at gatherings and that linguistic experts concluded they had been discussing membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir. The details of these discussions were not revealed in court. In addition, both Abdulgaziev’s and Izetov’s wives said that during the house searches on March 27, authorities said they found two books about Islam that are banned in Russia, which the wives said were planted.

Hizb ut-Tahrir seeks to establish a caliphate throughout the Muslim world based on sharia, or Islamic law. The movement publicly disavows violence but calls for an end to secular statehood in Muslim-majority countries. According to Memorial, Russia’s leading human rights organization, throughout Russia over 200 people have been criminally charged for alleged involvement in the group.

According to a local watchdog organization, The Crimean Human Rights Group, since 2014 at least 32 Crimean Tatars have been  held in either pretrial or post-conviction prison for alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, not including the most recent arrests. Lawyers for the men arrested in March said that their clients were not Hizb ut-Tahrir members and that the police had planted the books they allegedly found during the raids. Lawyers were barred from the scene during the house searches. One activist who attempted to film the event was fined, while another experienced a short-term administrative arrest.

Lawyers expressed concerns for their defendants because, since the custody hearings on March 27 and 28, most of them had been unable to make contact with their clients.

Since Russia seized and began occupying the peninsula in 2014, Crimean Tatars have been disproportionately affected by law enforcement action. From January 2017 through August 2018, 90 out of a documented 102 property searches or raids in Crimea affected Crimean Tatars, according to the United Nations. In 2016, a Russian Supreme Court order forced the Mejlis, the elected self-governing body of the Crimean Tatars, to disband. Crimean Tatars have also been victims of enforced disappearances and arbitrary arrests and prosecution.

Refat Chubarov, chairman of the now-disbanded Mejlis, said of the Russians: “With such mass arrests, they send a very clear signal to Crimean Tatars: if you don’t like it, leave.”

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