On 26 February 2014, around 10,000 Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians foiled Russia’s attempt to seize control of Crimea without open deployment of soldiers. Although unable to prevent Russia’s invasion, they did help ensure that the aggression was recognized as such, which Moscow has not forgiven. Exactly seven years later, Russia is prosecuting Sevilya Omerova for a peaceful single-person picket calling for the release of her husband and father-in-law. Enver Omerov and his son, Riza, are among at least 115 Ukrainian political prisoners, now held in occupied Crimea or Russia, most of whom are Crimean Tatars.
We now know that Russia’s massive military build-up and plans for seizure of power began earlier, on 20 February 2014, however the Kremlin was clearly hoping that an illegal vote in the Crimean parliament on changing Crimea’s status would conceal this first annexation of another European state’s sovereign territory since Adolf Hitler. The Mejlis, or self-governing body, of the Crimean Tatar people learned of the plans by certain pro-Russian politicians, doubtless in collaboration with Russia’s FSB, and organized the huge demonstration in support of Ukrainian unity on 26 February. The illegal vote could not take place, and at 4 a.m. on 27 February 2014, Russian soldiers without insignia began their seizure of power. Moscow still maintained its pretence with a pseudo ‘referendum’, without any option for retaining the status quo, staged and used for the ‘formal’ annexation of Crimea on 18 March 2014. The United Nations General Assembly and international community were never deceived, and sanctions were imposed. In a crucial decision on 14 January this year, the European Court of Human Rights demolished Moscow’s false narrative about Crimeans having ‘voted to join’ Russia. In finding most of Ukraine’s claims against Russia over human rights violations in occupied Crimea admissible, the Court accepted that Russia’s effective control over Ukrainian Crimea had begun on 27 February 2014.
On 26 February 2014 and since, Crimean Tatars have played an invaluable role in upholding Ukraine’s territorial integrity and insisting that the world does not forget that Crimea is Ukrainian. They have also been the hardest hit by the relentless repression that Russia’s occupation brought to Crimea.
Almost all Crimean Tatar Mejlis leaders have been imprisoned, prosecuted or banned from their homeland (and then put ‘on trial’ in absentia, in the case of the world-renowned Mustafa Dzhemilev and Head of the Mejlis, Refat Chubarov). The Mejlis itself has been banned, with Russia continuing to flout a binding order from the UN’s International Court of Justice to reinstate it issued in April 2017.
The imprisonment of Deputy Mejlis leader Akhtem Chiygoz and five other Crimean Tatars over the demonstration on 26 February 2014, and Russia’s rehash of these legally nonsensical charges in 2020, with its ‘trial’ in absentia of Refat Chubarov, make it clear that the main motive is revenge. The prosecutions are overtly racist, since only Crimean Tatars have been targeted, although any trouble that day came from pro-Russian activists, most of whom seem to have been bussed in from Sevastopol. They are also breathtakingly lawless since Russia is using its repressive legislation on supposed ‘mass riots’ over a largely peaceful demonstration which took place unequivocally on Ukrainian territory, under Ukrainian law.
Almost all victims of the abductions and / or enforced disappearances that Russia brought to occupied Crimea have been Crimean Tatars. While the first victim – 39-year-old peaceful protester, Reshat Ametov – was seized by the armed paramilitaries under Russian control, not Russian soldiers, Russia has never made any real attempt to prosecute those guilty of abducting him and savagely torturing him to death. There are strong grounds for believing that other abductions, including that of Crimean Tatar activist Ervin Ibragimov, were carried out by Russian-controlled enforcement bodies.
Russia’s first political prisoner, Mykola Shyptur, remains imprisoned, along with well over 110 other Ukrainians. The last release of political prisoners, including filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, was back in September 2019, and probably only happened because Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to get Vladimir Tsemakh, a vital witness and possible suspect in the downing by a Russian Buk missile of Malaysian airliner MH17, away from Ukrainian and Dutch prosecutors.
While human rights NGOs and international bodies regularly point to shocking rights violations in occupied Crimea, more is needed to get the kind of publicity that will make the Kremlin understand that it loses more by not releasing the prisoners.
Many acts of solidarity and support need only the Internet, and messages via Twitter or social media can help to highlight the tragic plight of Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian political prisoners serving up to 20-year sentences without any crime.
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