When thoughts are already a crime: The wife of Crimean Tatar Emir-Usein Kuku speaks about the fight for his freedom

Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula surrounded by the Black Sea, came under Russian control following the events of February-March 2014. Reports suggest that Russian regular military forces operating without insignia appeared on the peninsula as early as 20 February. In the following days, key administrative buildings across Crimea were occupied by the Russian forces and armed paramilitaries. On 18 March,  a “treaty” was signed in the Kremlin in Moscow on the accession to the Russian Federation of Crimea. These events had dramatic repercussions for those in Crimea who opposed its occupation and annexation. All dissenting voices were immediately subjected to persecution and harassment.

Four years ago, on 11 February 2016, Russian security service officers broke into the house of Crimean Tatar human rights activist Emir-Usein Kuku, handcuffed him, and took him to a detention centre. In November 2019, he was sentenced to 12 years in a high-security penal colony on charges of participation in the Hizb ut-Tahrir movement, an Islamist group banned as “terrorist” in Russia but operating freely in Ukraine. Along with him, five other Crimean Tatars were sentenced to long-term imprisonment: Muslim Aliyev, Enver Bekirov, Vadim Siryuk, Arsen Dzhepparov and Refat Alimov. Amnesty International considers all six men to be prisoners of conscience deprived of liberty for the exercise of the right to freedom of religion. On the anniversary of Emir-Usein’s arrest, his wife, Meriem, wrote this open letter.

Eleven February has become a day that seemed to catapult all of us into another universe, completely changing our family’s life. It was a terribly cold day, from those first moments of the early dark morning, when the FSB officers began to break down our doors, when they handcuffed Emir, when they put him on the floor, when they broke into the room where the children were sleeping, with machine guns –  it was very dank and cold.

The broken door slammed against the wall, it wouldn't close, oh, the cold, the dirt, those strange and terrible people who turned the whole house upside down.

Emir spent the whole day in handcuffs. While handcuffed he disassembled the sofa so it could be searched. I asked him: “Why are you doing this yourself? It's very painful.” He replied, “If you want the sofa to stay intact I'd better do it myself.” Even the FSB officers laughed.

We have a small apiary with wide beehive boxes covered with metal lids. They’re heavy, but Emir opened each box in handcuffs, so that the inside could be viewed. A swarm of bees flew out of one of the beehive boxes in spite of the cold weather because they were disturbed.

Everything taking place was absurd. Now, I look at it with humour.

That day I was told: “You will be bewildered in the evening.” I asked them to explain what it meant. They said: “You will understand for yourself.” And they took him away. Four years have passed since then.

When Emir was arrested and afterwards, during all these four years, when I and the children are met on the street by our neighbours and Emir's colleagues, everyone is confused and asks how this all happened – not only Crimean Tatars. At that time, a few years ago, when everyone was expecting a general upswing, right before their eyes a respectable family man was put in prison on absurd charges. He still receives people's support which means happiness for him, and none of the colleagues and neighbours believe this lie.

When it all started, many Crimean Tatars rallied around those who were in the same kind of trouble I was in, to give moral support in word and deed. Unfortunately, our people are familiar with this. This path had already been travelled by previous generations, our grandfathers, Emir's parents – they were children born to older parents, his father was twelve and his mother four when they were deported. This pain brings people together. In 1944 we were branded as traitors, all of us, children, mothers, elderly people, and the men were at the front. A new wave of lies has sprung these days and everyone understands that this injustice concerns all our people. This is familiar and close to us as grandchildren and children of the exiled.

There are not many Tatars at the school where our children study. Most of the children there are Russians, just like in Yalta. Their parents welcomed the Crimean spring very much including a teacher who taught my eldest son Bekir and whom I later chose to teach my youngest daughter Safie.

For her what happened to us was a big mess. She knew us as parents and she knew us as a family. After all this happened, I once saw her hugging and kissing the top of our children's heads. When an FSB officer approached our son Bekir after school in March 2016 and intimidated him, my lawyer and I decided to put him on trial for daring to come to our children's school. But instead an Inspector for Juvenile Affairs turned their gaze on us and demanded references from the school. Our teacher looked on our situation with great understanding and gave us very good references, for us and our children, which brought tears to my eyes when I read them. “I didn't write anything that was untrue, I just described you the way you are,” she told me later.

The children, of course, lost their childhood on 11 February 2016 when everything happened in front of everyone. They witnessed both the search and the court trials. We didn’t let them attend the very first trial, exceptionally, because we were expecting that things would get better and that Emir would return home. The kids attended every meeting with their father, they didn't even ask about when their dad would come back home.  

In January this year, we attended another meeting with Emir in Novocherkassk. Emir had not seen the children for a year. Before, during the prison meetings, we were merry and had fun, we could laugh and talk about household routines. But this time everything was so different. He was shocked at how the children had changed and grown up, he never took his eyes off them. I could barely hold back my tears. I had hoped he was used to the situation by then, but no.

Emir has always been an active person. He managed to work and do the house chores, take care of the bees and the children. I do not remember a single moment when my husband took time off throughout the ten years of our life together. He helped everyone with everything, no matter what it was – cleaning up the cemetery or close to the mosque, or on subbotniks (volunteer unpaid work in Russia). He always seemed to expect that he would be called to help. Everyone in Greater Yalta knew him.

After the first search on 20 April 2015, Emir was severely beaten. I told him: “Maybe you should leave this place?” He looked at me in surprise, as if asking me: Why should I leave? Have I done something wrong? Am I guilty for doing something wrong? He was sure he did nothing improper. Of course, he understood that something bad could happen, but not to such an extent - it was difficult for us, ordinary and simple people, to imagine this scale of human rights violations, how easily one can be labelled a “terrorist.”

But no matter how hard they try to use this label it will never take root. Using my husband as an example I can talk about all those who have been arrested. Over the years we have become close to their families. We have been united by this new reality when our brothers, husbands and fathers were arrested. All these families are like ours, where a father, a head of the family is a decent, active person who has paid the price of freedom for his beliefs. Everyone could witness it. Any person on the street in Rostov-on-Don, where the court trial was held, could attend one of the open court sessions, sit there for fifteen minutes and understand everything: what kind of people they are and what they were tried for.

Unfortunately, injustice is happening these days not only in Crimea. Have a look at the Facebook news feed. It is full of news about court sessions and arrests: Moscow, Bashkiria, Tatarstan. So many trials taking place in Moscow alone – people are tried both for holding rallies and for extremism. All this, unfortunately, is similar to our case: where a person is deprived of his or her right to freedom of speech. As Emir said he and his comrades were charged with a crime for his beliefs. This relates to all these cases: people have not done anything wrong, have not offended anyone even by a word. It is your thoughts that are a crime.

I would like to tell everybody who will read this: you should not keep silent when you witness injustice being inflicte to others, because this injustice can happen to anyone.

I really want human life and freedom to be more valuable in this country. Every person should have an opportunity to be free, without any fear of exercising their freedom. I am talking about my husband, but I also know him as a human being who has never done any evil, who has always been free. All his activities, all his desires were about freedom: to live on his land, the land of his ancestors, live with his family and live as he sees fit, live according to his religion, according to his culture. The solidarity of all people around us, with him and with us, shows an appreciation of his way of life.

We receive dozens of letters of solidarity. When I was in Kyiv I went to the office of Amnesty International to thank the entire team for these letters and postcards. It was just something so magical. I felt the incredible strength from and support of entirely unknown people who write such kind words. The children are amazed: “Why do they love us so much, why?” Emir has also received large packages of letters. At first they were not delivered to him. But when he was transferred to the pre-trial detention centre, they immediately gave him a huge bundle. During each meeting, he reports on who wrote to him and from where. The letters are not only from Ukraine and Russia, they also come from other countries. This is the warmth and light of the people that dispels the darkness of prison.