Crimea: Peninsula of fear

Picture: © Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

By Bogdan Ovcharuk, press officer for Amnesty International Ukraine @goddan 

A month before the first anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, Bogdan Ovcharuk, press officer for AI Ukraine, travelled with a research team to assess the human rights situation there. They were particularly interested to meet Crimean Tatars whose lives have changed dramatically over the past year.

Sheltering from the sleet, piercing wind and oppressive grey sky, we sat in a Crimean Tatar café in front of the courthouse in Simferopol, watching the anchor of Russia’s main national channel on TV talking about the latest developments in Russia. This is par for the course now, and not surprising as Ukrainian channels are not welcome here anymore.

We were there to meet, Elmira Ablyalimova, the wife of Crimean Tatar activist, Akhtem Chiygoz, prior to a court hearing on his case. His relatives and lawyer had only been informed about the hearing a few hours earlier. His lawyer was unable to make it and therefore Akhtem was deprived of the right to a defense.

“Did you have a chance to pray?”Akhtem is accused of organizing riots, inciting violence and causing death during a confrontation between pro-Ukrainian activists (mainly Crimean Tatars) and pro-Russian activists near the Supreme Council of Crimea, on 26 February 2014.

Elmira explained to us what happened to her the day after he was arrested. In the early morning there was a knock at the door. As she opened it, 18 armed men burst through.

“They came to our house at 7.30 am and demanded to be let in. I asked for some time to get dressed, but they said I had two minutes or they would shoot the dog. When they entered, one of the officers asked mockingly ‘Did you have a chance to pray?’

Elmira was not allowed to contact anyone. She explained how, as they searched the house, she was ridiculed.

“When they asked for proof of my relationship with my husband, I said that we have a Muslim marriage. One of them told me that he had 20 of such marriages. They all were laughing loudly. Then they began to search in my private belongings. I’m 40 years old and as a woman, as a citizen and as a Muslim I have never felt such a humiliation in my whole life.”

On the way to the courthouse we were met by a large group of Crimean Tatars – friends, relatives and associates of Akhtem Chiygoz. Despite the fact that they had only been informed about the trial a couple of hours ago, they had gathered quickly to show their support.

When we arrived, we were told that we were not allowed into the courthouse.

“This is an open court. Why are we not allowed in?” a middle-aged Crimean Tatar asked a security guard.

The bailiff told us that the court was about to close and that all the seats were taken.

Inside, the court decided to extend Akhtem’s pretrial detention until 19 May.

Defiantly, Elmira told us: “This case was only initiated against my husband as he is the only leader left who can influence opinions and unite the Crimean Tatars. Two of our prominent leaders were prohibited by news authorities from entering Crimea.”

Intimidated to speak outWe later visited the Crimean Tatar TV channel ATR where 30 armed, masked men had recently searched the premises.

The channel is one of the few independent media in the Crimea and the only channel in the world which broadcasts in the Crimean Tatar language.

Lilya Budjurova, an official at the channel described what happened: “They said they wanted our footage of the events of 26 February 2014. We offered to give materials voluntarily, because we do not have any secrets. But they said that we could have hidden them, and would therefore search our premises and electronic servers and that each employee would be searched individually.”

“A man approached a woman and raised a gun to her. Of course, he didn’t fire and probably had no intention of doing so, but the whole search was clearly done to intimidate us. They needed to demonstrate their power; they needed to run and walk about our territory with guns.”

Nonviolent resistance

Disappearances, suspicious deaths, searches, arrests, armed men walking on the streets in camouflage with no insignia, and the muzzling of the media have really sown fear and despair among the Crimean Tatars.

The detention and disappearance of community leaders, the harassment of Mejlis (the organisation that represents Tatars), and bans on public gathering, suggest little hope that this fear will end soon.

“The Crimean Tatar national movement is based on the principle non-violence,” Elmira explained to me.

“All our actions are non-violent – rallies, pickets and demonstrations – defending the rights of our people. Now, unfortunately, no Tatar family feels safe in Crimea. So now our main task – the basic requirement – is to be able to live safely in our homeland and for the unconditional restoration of our rights as indigenous people of Crimea.”

The depth of the tragedy that these people have lived through is unimaginable. Despite Stalin’s deportation and the deaths of half of their population, the strength that has allowed the Crimean Tatars to survive, never ceases to amaze. This is their home, and they are determined to defend their rights. It is this solidarity and the unity of the Crimean Tatars that inspires hope for the future that, one day, they will be able to live without fear and enjoy their rights.

For more information:

Crimea: One year on from annexation; critics harassed, attacked and silenced