(Berlin) – Russian authorities have brought unfounded terrorism charges against 24 Crimean Tatars, 20 of whom were arrested during heavily armed raids on their homes in the spring of this year, Human Rights Watch said today. Security officers tortured four of the men, denied lawyers access to search sites, planted evidence, and later briefly detained two activists who spoke out on behalf of the arrested men.
Crimean Tatars are a Muslim ethnic minority indigenous to the Crimean Peninsula. Many openly oppose Russia’s occupation, which began in 2014.The crackdown in the spring of 2019 is the latest in a pattern of repression to smear peaceful activists as terrorists and to stifle dissent in occupied Crimea. Russian authorities should release the activists and stop misusing the country’s overly broad counterterrorism legislation to stifle freedom of opinion, expression, and religion.
“Russian authorities seek to portray Crimean Tatars who oppose Russia’s occupation as ‘terrorists’ and ‘extremists,’” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Russian authorities in Crimea are using terrorism charges as a convenient tool of repression.”
Human Rights Watch visited Crimea from May 17 to 20 and interviewed 16 relatives of 9 of those arrested, 5 lawyers representing some of them, and a leading activist with Crimean Solidarity, which provides aid to families of individuals arrested on politically motivated charges. Human Rights Watch also examined some legal documents and seven search sites, including the places where banned books or brochures had been allegedly planted. One lawyer, who is based in Moscow, was interviewed by phone.
Most of the 24 men arrested were active in Crimean Solidarity, a loose association of human rights lawyers, relatives, and supporters of victims of political repression. All have been charged with association with Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), the controversial pan-Islamist movement that is banned in Russia as a “terrorist” organization but is legal in Ukraine. Hizb ut-Tahrir seeks the establishment of a caliphate but does not espouse violence to achieve its goals.
The raids took place on March 27, 2019, with early morning large-scale search-and-seizure operations in the activists’ homes in Crimea’s capital, Simferopol, and its suburbs. Heavily armed security personnel and police cordoned off homes and stormed inside, in some cases breaking doors and windows. They seized computer equipment, cell phones, tablets, flash drives, and Islamic literature. The searches violated procedural safeguards provided for in Russian and Ukrainian law, such as not allowing the residents to have a legal counsel present and not having independent witnesses to observe the search. In some cases, security officers appeared to plant books and brochures banned in Russia as “extremist publications.”
Twenty men were arrested at home, immediately following the searches. Three were arrested later that evening in Rostov-on-Don, where they had traveled the day before to deliver food parcels to jailed activists and attend court hearings. Officers with Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) abducted, beat, and threatened to kill them, then transported them to Crimea.
Lawyers for these 23 men were granted access to their clients when the clients were in custody at the FSB headquarters in Simferopol. Court hearings on pretrial custody took place in Simferopol on March 27 and 28. Lawyers and family members said the hearings, which resulted in pretrial detention, were rushed, perfunctory, and either closed or severely restricted public access.
One man, Edem Yayachikov, remains at large, wanted by Russian authorities on allegations of Hizb ut-Tahrir involvement. On April 17, FSB agents rounded up Raim Aivazov, a Crimean Tatar activist and friend of Yayachikov. They drove him to a deserted area, carried out a mock execution, beat him, and threatened to kill him unless he “cooperated.” They took him to the FSB office in Simferopol and forced him to sign a “confession” incriminating himself, Yayachikov, and those arrested on March 27 as Hizb ut-Tahrir members.
During his second pretrial custody hearing, Aivazov told the judge about his ordeal and retracted his confession. His lawyer filed a kidnapping and torture complaint, and the authorities have opened an inquiry.
None of the men are accused of planning, carrying out, or being an accessory to any act of violence. Nineteen, including Aivazov, are charged with involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, and five with organizing the activities of an alleged local Hizb-ut-Tahrir cell. Under Russian law, neither offense requires evidence that the accused has committed any specific offending behavior, such as planning or abetting attacks.
Edem Semedlyaev, a lawyer for one of the men who coordinates the work of lawyers representing the others, said that the defendants chose to neither acknowledge nor deny links with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Instead they invoked Article 51 of Russia’s Constitution, which sets out the rights against self-incrimination. If convicted, the men face prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life under Article 205.5 of Russia’s criminal code (organizing and participating in activities of a terrorist organization).
These 24 arrests were followed by the arrests of another eight men in Crimea on similar charges on June 10, bringing the total number of Crimean Tatars being prosecuted for association with Hizb ut-Tahrir since 2015 to 63. Among them were five Crimean Tatar activists who on June 18 received prison sentences ranging from 12 to 17 years. The FSB said that it has identified and eliminated Hizb ut-Tahrir cells in Yalta, Bakhchisarai, Simferopol, and Sevastopol.
With the 24 most recent cases not yet moved to trial, defense lawyers have yet had access to all the alleged evidence against their clients. Based on the documents and information they have received during the investigation and pretrial custody hearings, they believe that, as in previous Hizb ut-Tahrir cases in Crimea, the prosecution will largely rely on recordings of discussions on religion and politics obtained through wire-tapping and testimony from “secret witnesses,” or under-cover agents.
Semedlyaev said that he and his colleagues saw the case as politically motivated “because practically all the people who were arrested… had an active civic position. They helped victims of abuses, they were not afraid of speaking up… of shedding light [on abuses] … Also, [the authorities] show all others – if you follow their footsteps, you will share their fate.”
Russia’s international partners should urge Russian authorities to drop the charges against Crimean Tatar activists and ensure prompt, effective, and impartial investigations into all allegations of abuse by law enforcement and security officers against them.
“There are neither accusations nor evidence that these Crimean Tatar men were involved in or planning any act of violence,” Williamson said. “Russian authorities should stop the crackdown on Crimean Solidarity and unjustified interference with freedom of association, religion, and expression in Crimea.”
For details about the crackdown, the legal framework, and the family’s accounts, please see below.
At least 20 of the 24 arrested men were involved, to different degrees, with Crimean Solidarity. Established in 2016, the group provides legal and social support for the families of those arrested for political reasons and documents and live streams court proceedings, police searches, and raids. It has become the most active voice among those peacefully opposing the occupation of the peninsula. Most of the group’s activists are Crimean Tatars.
Many Crimean Tatar activists and others critical of Russia’s actions in Crimea have been targets of persecution since Russia began occupying the peninsula in 2014. Russian authorities and their proxies have subjected them to harassment, intimidation, threats, intrusive and unlawful searches of their homes, criminal prosecution, physical attacks, and enforced disappearances. Russia has banned Crimean Tatar media and organizations that criticized Russia’s actions in Crimea.
In May, two leading members of Crimean Solidarity, Lutfie Zudieva and Mumine Saliyeva, were briefly detained and fined for “propaganda with the use of extremist symbols.” This administrative charge stemmed from their earlier social media posts supposedly involving symbols or inscriptions related to Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Torture, Cruel, and Degrading Treatment
Human Rights Watch concluded from its research that at least 4 of the 24 detained men experienced torture or other cruel and degrading treatment at the hands of Russian security agents.
Raim Aivazov, born 1994
Aivazov, a resident of Kamenka, knew some of the men arrested on March 27 and is a close friend of Yayachikov, who is wanted by authorities. FSB agents detained Aivazov and forced him to incriminate himself and others under torture.
On April 16, Aivazov was traveling to Odessa, arriving at the Kalanchak crossing point, on the Russian imposed border with the rest of Ukraine around midnight. His wife, Mavile Aivazova, said that he texted her that a Russian border control officer took his passport and told him to wait. Aivazov sent his wife several more messages, saying he was still waiting, and that the border officials would not explain the delay. His last message came at 3 a.m. on April 17. She then called and texted him repeatedly on various messaging platforms, but he did not reply. Later that morning, the family filed a missing person report.
At 10:30 a.m., Aivazov’s wife and mother received messages from Aivazov’s number saying that he had crossed the border and that all was well. Both immediately replied, urging him to call them on video. They received repeated replies saying it was not a good time. After the family persisted, the sender promised to call “in 10-15 minutes,” but then stopped replying. Both women assumed that the messages had been sent by someone who was holding Aivazov. That afternoon, Aivazov called his sister, saying he had been arrested and was at the FSB headquarters in Simferopol.
On April 18, Aivazov’s family saw him at his pretrial custody hearing in Simferopol. Aivazov’s mother, Zukhra Amakova, said, “He was like a stranger. We couldn’t recognize him… He wouldn’t lift his eyes. He wouldn’t look at [us]. His father was asking, ‘Raim, what happened?’ And he just said, ‘Papa, that’s the way it has to be.’” Aivazov’s wife said that at one point he whispered to her that he had been “taken to the woods” and “had confessed to everything they wanted.”
In May, when his Moscow-based lawyer, Maria Eismont, visited Aivazoz before his second pretrial custody hearing, she learned about what had happened to him. Aivazov told Eismont that at the crossing check point, three FSB agents had rounded him up, forced him into a car, and drove to a nearby forest. They kicked him and forced him to his knees. One put a gun to Aivazov’s head as the others fired shots next to him, threatening to kill him and dump his body in a pond. They demanded to know Yayachikov’s whereabouts, and because Aivazov could not answer the question, he thought they would kill him. The agents then told him that the only way he could save his life was by “cooperating” with them.
They took him to the FSB office in Simferopol. Officials wrote up a detention report saying he was detained at 1:30 p.m. on April 17 in the office of an FSB investigator. It made no mention of Aivazov having been seized at the crossing point. The investigator provided a state-appointed lawyer who told Aivazov that it was in his “best interest” to sign the documents the investigator wanted him to sign. Aivazov signed a confession saying he was a member of a Hizb ut-Tahrir cell, along with the recently arrested men.
Eismont convinced Aivazov to tell the judge at his pretrial custody hearing on May 13 about the real circumstances of his detention and the threats, including mock executions, and to withdraw his confession. On May 17, Eismont filed a complaint with Russia’s chief criminal investigative agency, describing her client’s treatment and seeking an investigation. She said the agency forwarded the complaint to its military investigative department in Crimea. A department investigator questioned Aivazov in his lawyer’s presence, and an inquiry is ongoing. Aivazov is in pretrial detention in Crimea. The others are being held in the Rostov region, in southern Russia.
Remzi Bekirov (age 34), Vladlen Abdulkadyrov, (born 1969), and Osman Arifimetov (born 1985)
Bekirov, Abdulkadyrov, and Arifimetov are among Crimean Solidarity’s most active members. They live-streamed from court hearings and assembled food parcels for prisoners. Relatives and lawyers describe them as “citizen-journalists.” Bekirov also has a press card from Grani.Ru, an independent online media outlet. FSB officers detained them in Rostov region, took them to a deserted area, beat them, and threatened to kill them. They had no food and very limited access to water for 24 hours after their detention.
The night before the house raids, the three traveled to Rostov-on-Don with parcels for jailed activists. Bekirov’s lawyer, Semedlyaev, said that FSB agents detained the three on March 27 between 8 and 9 p.m., at a McDonald’s in Aksai, 19 kilometers from Rostov-on-Don. A group of 10 to 15 officers rushed in, threw them to the floor, and kicked and beat them, mostly on the legs. Arifimetov also received a blow to his head and passed out.
The agents handcuffed the men and drove them to a forest, beating them and calling them offensive names on the way. Once there, the FSB agents beat them, pressed them for Yayachikov’s whereabouts, and demanded to know who tipped them off about the house raids. They said they did not know about Yayachikov and had heard only that morning about the house raids. “They threatened to kill them and bury the bodies right there,” Semedlyaev said. “At that point, the guys thought that was it. They were ready to say good-bye to life.”
The agents then drove the men to the Simferopol FSB headquarters, arriving on March 28. They were formally questioned, charged, and taken before a judge who authorized pretrial custody. At around 10 p.m., when they reached the Simferopol pretrial detention center, they were finally given food. The next morning, they and the other 20 men were flown to Rostov-on-Don and placed in several pretrial detention centers in Rostov region.
Disproportionate Use of Force
The March 27 raids began at around 6 a.m. and were conducted in the style of large-scale counterterrorism operations. Groups of heavily armed security agents and police cordoned off the targeted houses and, in some cases, entire streets or blocks. Relatives of the arrested men said they were awakened by loud knocks. Once they opened the door, armed and masked security agents stormed in and effectively took over before eventually identifying themselves properly or showing a warrant.
“They flew into different rooms, like flies,” said Suriya Sheikhalieva, wife of Rustem Sheikhaliev, from Kamenka. Gulzar Abdulkadyrova, wife of Vladlen Abdulkadyrov, from Stroganovka, could not count how many agents there were because “they just rushed into the house, without saying anything, without identifying themselves, and ran to different rooms.”
In several cases, security officers also broke doors or windows.
Semedlyaev said they broke a window in Yayachikov’s house in Kamenka.
Aliye Nezhmedunova, Arifimetov’s wife, said that no one was home and that her father and brother-in-law rushed to the house when other relatives told them what was happening. When the two men arrived, security agents would not allow them into the yard. Neighbors told Nezhmedunova that they saw the agents breaking the door and asked why they needed to do that. They said the agents replied, “We’ll tear apart the whole house if we feel like it.” They broke the front door and the door to the basement.
When Nezhmedunova was finally allowed to enter, after the search, she was struck by the damage. “They dragged everything from the basement outside – boxes, cans, our stroller and bicycle, [wooden shelves] and all the stuff – and just dumped it all in the yard. They overturned the children’s bed and all our documents and papers were thrown around… everywhere.”
The heavily armed and masked men frightened the children. Razie Gafarova, wife of Dzhemil Gafarov from Stroganovka, said that during the search, which lasted several hours, her daughters, ages 12 and 17, and brother, and sister-in-law were confined to the kitchen by several armed officers, which the girls found very frightening. “Both girls have been sleeping in the same room with me [since the raid] – they’re too shaken up,” Gafarova said. She pointed out that her husband was not an activist but knew some of the other men arrested.
Ruslan Suleimanov’s lawyer, Lilya Ghemedzhi, and his wife, Elzara Sifersha, said that the family’s nine-year-old son was particularly upset by the raid. “The stress was so severe that his psycho-emotional state is still affected,” Ghemedzhi said. “He needs psychological assistance.”
Suleimanov’s 70-year-old mother, Zera Suleimanova, fainted after seeing numerous armed and masked agents at their front door. Sifersha said:
She was standing on the doorstep and began sliding down it. [Suleimanov] rushed to her and caught her as she fainted. We screamed, urging [the agents] to call an ambulance. One of them said, ‘What’s happening here?’ and another replied, ‘Pay no attention. It’s just a show.’ … I said she could die because she has a heart condition. I asked several times and only on my third, or fourth attempt, one of them … called an ambulance.
The investigator promised to give Suleimanova a chance to say goodbye to her son, but the agents took him away without telling her. Ghemedzhi was near the yard but was denied access to the home, even though she was the family’s lawyer. She saw Suleimanova begging the armed servicemen to let her see her son. “I asked the police to let me calm her down, explain… support [her]. But they [refused] and I had to scream over the police cordon that her son had already been taken away.”
Three of the nine families interviewed said that security agents planted books and brochures associated with Hizb ut-Tahrir during house raids. In all three cases, the books and brochures seemed brand new and pristine, despite being found in dusty basements and/or cupboards. During the raids, most family members were forced to sit in one room, while security agents were able to go through the contents of the houses without a lawyer, independent witnesses, or the family present. These conditions made it possible to plant evidence undetected.
Khalide Bekirova, wife of Remzi Bekirov, from Stroganovka, said that security agents allegedly “found” books on a shelf in her basement: “I was in the living room, my parents and the kids were in the kitchen. . . During that time, they planted those books in the basement, two or three white books, one of them was called Caliphate.”
Gafarova said that security agents allegedly “found” two brochures in their attic. The agents started searching the attic before she or her husband had made it upstairs to monitor the search.
Those brochures… were new and glossy. There was not a speck of dust on them, though … the attic is dusty. … Two officers went up … They spent very little time poking around and then, bingo, they just picked up two brochures from the top of a cabinet… [Then] they immediately … returned downstairs, like they knew there was nothing else in the attic worth their attention.
Human Rights Watch examined the attic and, given its size and cluttered state, acknowledged it would have taken substantial time to conduct a complete search.
Ghemedzhi and Sifersha, Ruslan Suleimanov’s lawyer and wife respectively, said that security agents planted three books in the house and a cell phone in the yard. Ghemedzhi was standing by the police cordon and could see masked agents poking around Suleimanov’s yard and “opening doors of outbuildings” with no residents or witnesses there. Soon, she saw the agents leading Suleimanov through the yard, toward an outbuilding. An agent picked up a small, dark object from the ground. Suleimanov later told Ghemedzhi that it was a cell phone that belonged neither to him nor his family members.
Sifersha said that the agents “discovered” the three books when no one was present. They first found some cash on a shelf and told Suleimanov to take the money to his father. Then, the family heard one of the agents yelling, “We got you!” They looked out of the room and saw the agents standing in the hall with three brand new white books, one of which was titled Caliphate.
Suleimanov said that his family owned no such books and one of the agents told him to take them and have a look. Suleimanov refused to touch them, suspecting the agent was trying to trick him into leaving his fingerprints on them.
Members of all nine families said that the agents had brought some young adults, who were unknown in the local communities and appeared to be about the age of first-year university students, to act as witnesses to the searches. The family members who had been there, said that the young witnesses appeared uninterested in the proceedings, paid no attention to the security officers’ actions, signed the protocols without reading them or, in several cases, even seemed to be acting in collusion with security officers, to the point of assisting with a search. The agents denied residents’ requests to call witnesses from their neighborhood.
Legal Counsel Excluded from Observing Searches, Arrests
Russian and Ukrainian criminal procedure provides that lawyers may be present during house searches. Several lawyers active in Crimean Solidarity quickly found out about the raids and rushed to the sites. They requested access to advise their clients and monitor the search. Security agents refused to allow them past the cordons. Bekirova said that she could see her lawyer behind the police cordon and unsuccessfully demanded that they let her in.
Semedlyaev, who at the time of the search represented Yayachikov and his family, said that a riot police officer on the other side of Yayachikov’s gate prevented him from entering. Semedlyaev showed his lawyer’s ID and asked the policeman to tell the commanding officer that a lawyer had arrived to advise his clients and needed to access the premises. After Semedlyaev’s repeated requests, police told him the commanding officer said not to let him in. Yayachikov’s relatives told Smedlyaev that the search took place with no family members present. “No one even knew what they [the agents] seized,” Semedlyaev said.
The lawyers were granted access to their clients when they were in custody at the FSB headquarters before pretrial custody hearings, held on March 27 and 28. Those whose clients’ hearings were on March 27 had no time to prepare properly.
As an occupying power, Russia is obliged by international law to respect Ukrainian laws that were in force in Crimea when it began its occupation, unless they constitute a threat to its security or an obstacle to the application of the international law of occupation. Russia rejects its status as an occupying power, violates it obligations under international humanitarian law, and applies its federal laws to Crimea, including criminalizing activity not previously criminalized on the peninsula. Nonetheless, all relevant human rights treaties, including the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the Convention against Torture (CAT), apply in Crimea and all authorities, whether they are Russian or Crimean acting under Russian authority, are bound by these treaties.
The relevant obligations on Russia’s security and law enforcement include the absolute prohibition on torture, and other forms of cruel and inhuman treatment and the prohibition on arbitrary detention. The context of the detention of the men, and the treatment to which many of them were subjected, violate those prohibitions.
The ECHR and the ICCPR impose obligations to ensure people are protected from the risk of undue intrusions by law enforcement or other state agents into their homes. As such, any actions by law enforcement when conducting searches on private homes must be in accordance with law, necessary in a democratic society, and proportionate to the lawful aim pursued. Actions such as unnecessary show of force and ransacking of private premises violates human rights protections against arbitrary interference with family, home, and private life. Safeguards should be in place to prevent abuse by law enforcement, including in anti-terrorist legislation, and agents must comply with the law in the conduct of operations and searches.
Russia must also respect fundamental rights to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and religion. While it may fall within Russia’s discretion to proscribe Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organization, that does not give Russian authorities carte blanche to use its counterterrorism law as a tool to suppress nonviolent opposition, criticism, or protest.
The prosecution on terrorism charges of Crimean Tatars for political or religious speech that does not call for or incite violence is an unjustified interference with freedoms of opinion, expression, and religion.
Russia’s use of the ban on Hizb ut-Tahrir to go after Crimean Tatar activists who have not engaged in criminal behavior, but who may oppose Russian occupation or are discussing their religious and political beliefs, is not only a violation of freedom of association but is a misuse of the criminal justice system for political ends.