Court hearings underway in Russia have confirmed the immense cynicism of the FSB operation against 25 Crimean Tatar journalists and civic activists on 27 March 2019. The officers brought their own ‘witnesses’ who could be relied upon to not notice them planting ‘prohibited’ religious literature, and kept out lawyers who would certainly have cried foul. Just how foul this is was eloquently expressed in civic activist Tofik Abdulgaziev’s address to the court in Rostov-on-Don on 27 April 2021.
He explained that the FSB had first burst into one of the family’s two premises at around 5 a.m., and had then taken him to the house where his three small children (aged 4,8 and 12) were with his 75-year-old mother, who suffers from diabetes and other illnesses and who is also caring for her paralyzed son. The elderly lady became terribly distressed, and Abdulgaziev concentrated on trying to calm her. Since the lawyer who had appeared within 15 minutes or so of the first ‘search’ was prevented from entering either home, and the FSB had separated into two groups to ‘search’ the second of the two homes, Abdulgaziev asked his 12-year-old son to follow the FSB around and make sure they didn’t plant anything. The search where Abdulgaziev was had just ended when he heard his son shouting, “Papa, they’ve planted some books near the dog kennel!” Abdulgaziev recounts that an FSB man walked into the room where he was being held and put two ‘prohibited’ books on the table.
“I immediately looked investigator [Sergei] Bushuyev in the eye, he averted his gaze from me since he’d seen the position of my family, my mother and my small children. He was presumably ashamed or frightened, but his position doesn’t allow him to change anything. I would point out that we Muslims do not keep books in dog kennels or near dogs. I would also note that those books were perfectly new and were dry, although it was raining that day.
When the FSB officers ended the search, they told me that I had to go with them. My small daughter ran up to me, hugged me and asked “Papa, will we see each other again?” Hearing that, Bushuyev lowered his eyes and walked to the car. “
“I would like to end by noting that we see here hatred to my people, hatred to Muslims of Crimea. You have the sense that a wild animal has burst out of its borders and has eyed easy prey. After all we Muslims of Crimea are a peaceful people. We practise our religion – Islam. And I am proud of this, proud of my people, I am proud of all Muslims. I would ask you to add that to the case”.
Other defendants, and their lawyers have also reported that material was planted, with the FSB either insulting the men or just cynical enough to know that the courts would ignore the impossibility of any religious books having been found, for example, under the stairs, near to a toilet.
Bilyal Adilov also stated categorically that the books allegedly ‘found’ were not his, and noted that his fingerprints had not been found on any of the material. Adilov’s wife, Gulnara, and his 17-year-old son, Fevzi earlier described to Krym.Realii the horror of that day, and how the younger children had been so terrified by men in masks brandishing machine guns that they hid together under the blankets. Fevzi says that he saw FSB officers coming out of their larder, where there is only a cupboard and a freezer, with three books. They were so new that when you opened them, the pages still stuck together. He added that he knows what books they have in the house, and that, in any case, books would have been on a bookshelf and not in the larder.
Izzet Abdullayev pointed out to the court that, in stating that he had refused to sign the search protocol, the prosecutors had preferred not to state why. Abdullayev had refused to sign because of multiple infringements, from the refusal to admit his lawyer to the fact that the so-called ‘witnesses to the search’ were in balaclavas so that you could not see their faces. Unsurprisingly, these individuals ‘see nothing’ when material brought into the house is then claimed to have been found.
These ‘witnesses’ should be neighbours or, perhaps, passers-by, yet instead the FSB invariably arrive with them. Lawyers representing civic journalists Osman Arifmemetov and Rustem Sheikhaliev have pointed out that one such ‘witness’, a certain Mr Glagolkin, appears in this capacity suspiciously often.
It is, of course, appalling that the FSB are planting evidence. It is no less shocking that books which are purely of a religious nature should be viewed as constituting ‘evidence’. The prosecution’s other ‘proof’ is of never better quality. The charges against all 25 civic activists and journalists appear to be based mainly on around three illicitly recorded meetings where the men discussed religious, ethical and similar themes. There are also ‘secret witnesses’ whose identity is unknown and whose testimony cannot be checked, and also ‘expert assessments’ given by academics without the proper training, but notorious for ‘finding’ in this word or that proof of the claims that the FSB are making.
All of the men are charged only with ‘involvement’ in the Hizb ut-Tahrir movement, a peaceful pan-Islamist party which is legal in Ukraine and which is not known to have carried out acts of terrorism anywhere in the world. Russia has never provided any grounds for its highly secretive 2003 Supreme Court ruling that declared Hizb ut-Tahrir ‘terrorist’, yet this inexplicable ruling is now being used as justification for huge sentences on supposed ‘terrorism charges’. Some of the men are facing the more serious charge of ‘organizing’ a Hizb ut-Tahrir group (Article 205.5 § 1 of Russia’s criminal code). There is no proof that such a group even existed, yet the men face sentences of around 20 years or even life imprisonment. The other 20 activists and journalists are charged under Article 205.5 § 2 of ‘involvement’, with this still carrying a potential sentence of 10-20 years.
The aggressor state, which invaded and annexed Crimea is also charging all 25 Ukrainian citizens with “planning a violent seizure of power and change in Russia’s constitutional order” (Article 278). Here too, there are no grounds for the charges.
The arrests on 27 March 2019 were the worst attack to date on Crimean Tatar civic activists and journalists, in particular from the civic initiative Crimean Solidarity. They were condemned by Human Rights Watch who stated that “the sweeping arrests in Crimea aim to portray politically active Crimean Tatars as terrorists as a way to silence them”. All of the men were recognized almost immediately as political prisoners by the Memorial Human Rights Centre, and their release has been demanded by, among others, the European Parliament and US State Department.
It is extremely likely that the attention the case attracted prompted Russia to divide the case up into five clone trials, all of them with identical charges, the same ‘secret witnesses’ and other flawed evidence. These are now underway at the Southern District Military Court in Rostov which has been notorious as a conveyor belt of politically-motivated sentence since the trial of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko.
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