Crimean Tatar Accused Of Restoring 'Nazism' For Antiwar Poem
Tony Wesolowsky, Ilya Tarasov, Oleh Trokhimovich
Aliye Kenzhalieva is convinced Victory Day in Russia to mark the end of World War II has become more a celebration of the military than a solemn remembrance of those who perished in the conflict.
So the Crimean Tatar poet put pen to paper, scrawling down her thoughts in verse, which were published by the Tatar-language newspaper Qirim on May 9.
But authorities in Crimea, which Russia forcibly annexed from Ukraine in March 2014, suspected something more sinister in her rhymes.
Officials accused Kenzhalieva of "rehabilitating Nazism," an offense carrying a possible prison sentence if convicted.
Kenzhalieva, who has not been officially charged, is flabbergasted by the charge, and has dismissed the whole thing as a farce.
"My verses were hatched from the absurdity of the situation: go, rejoice, celebrate. It seems to me that many others feel the same way, but just not everyone expresses it. Poets have that ability," Kenzhalieva told the Crimea Desk of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law in May 2014 making the denial of Nazi crimes and distortion of the Soviet Union's role in World War II a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in prison.
The law, slammed by critics as an attempt to limit free speech, also criminalizes the public desecration of war memorials.
Commentators say the Kremlin has exploited the events of War World II to unite a Russian society that Putin has said lost its moral bearings following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
It is risky business in Russia -- and Crimea as well -- to dispute the official line that glorifies the wartime achievements of the Soviet leadership and plays down its mistakes.
Kenzhalieva has been questioned twice already by investigators in the Crimean capital, Simferopol.
On June 27, Kenzhalieva, who teaches Russian language and literature, was notified by Russia-installed local authorities that she was under investigation and that she would need to come in for police questioning in Simferopol the next day.
"Immediately they grilled me: 'Why don't I like Victory Day? Why am I so negative about the holiday in my writings?'"
According to Kenzhalieva, the investigator argued that her verses expressed "disrespect for memorable events and war heroes."
"For me, Victory Day is not a holiday but a tragedy. I respect the dead and don't want their deaths to be a reason for celebration."
She was called in for questioning again on July 2 when she was told Roskomnadzor, Russia's mass-media regulator, had "ensnarled" her, sending her case on to the Investigative Committee to examine for possible criminal prosecution.
Authorities told her the Investigative Committee had not found her guilty of "inciting hatred" but of "rehabilitating Nazism."
The investigators, together with the police, also tried to turn up at the editorial offices of the Qirim newspaper but found it closed.Since the Russian annexation, it has only been published once a week and the offices are only open on three weekdays.
Her lawyer, Aleksei Ladin, calls the investigation a "witch hunt" and accuses investigators of concocting as many bogus cases as possible "to justify their existence."
"The material over the creation and circulation of poems demonstrates the absurdity of criminal prosecutions initiated under the guise of fighting extremism, justification of fascism, and other things," Ladin adds.
In her poem, which was published by Qirim on May 9, Kenzhalieva laments what she views as the rising "militarization of Victory Day" and pays homage to her homeland, Crimea, according to a translation by the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group KHRG.
They teach [people] to love war
To not remember tragedy
To not pray for the souls of the unfortunates
To not preserve this fragile peace.
They teach [people] to love war
To be happy that it took place
To wear a military uniform
To be proud in song and dance
To organize a holiday...
Here my great-grandfather lived, his gardens were here,
Now there are the parades of an alien country
As the KHRG's Halya Coynash notes, children in Crimea are being increasingly targeted by the Russia-installed authorities with a steady diet of "militarization," parading on Victory Day in military garb, and taking part in Putin's controversial "youth army."
The YunArmia was created by Putin himself in May 2016 and had nearly 190,000 members as of February 2018.
Critics see it as a further sign of the militarization of Russia under Putin. Some see echoes of the Young Pioneers, the official Soviet-era youth movement of the Communist Party.
Children as young as 10 are recruited and taught how to use weapons, political ideology, and Russian history. Supporters claim the practices revive traditions and instill pride in history and homeland in the next generation of Russians.
In Crimea, Bekir Mamutov, editor in chief of Qirim, is shocked that Kenzhalieva's poem could violate any law.
"These are her thoughts, her poetic vision of important historical events. A person writes about her fears and the words used to express this feeling suddenly fall under a certain article of the law. In the 21st century this is simply incredible. We didn't expect this, of course," says Mamutov.
But Crimean Tatars, a Muslim ethnic minority that is indigenous to the Crimean Peninsula, have grown to expect persecution by the Russia-installed authorities.
"Russian authorities in Crimea have relentlessly persecuted Crimean Tatars for their vocal opposition to Russia's occupation since it began in 2014," said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "They have portrayed politically active Crimean Tatars as extremists and terrorists, forced many into exile, and ensured that those who choose to stay never feel safe to speak their mind."
More than 10 people have been convicted under the same statute with which Kenzhalieva is now being investigated.
In one of the more high-profile cases, Vladimir Luzgin was convicted for a social-media post stating that the Soviet Union collaborated with Nazi Germany and jointly unleashed World War II by attacking Poland.
Luzgin fled Russia following his June 2016 conviction and traveled to the Czech Republic where his application for asylum was denied.
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