The Imprisoned Voices of the Crimea

Published: 21.05.2020,  Views: 388

Mariia Semenchenko

How the Russian Federation not only persecutes and deprives the Crimean Tatars of their freedom, but tries to silence them: stories of citizen journalists and human rights defenders.

For the first time Russian security officers came with a search to a Crimean human rights defender Emir-Usein Kuku in April of 2015. ‘When the entire house was turned inside out, and they put handcuffs on Emir, my nine-year-old son asked, “This is how they came to grandpa in 1944, right? Only now they are FSB, and then they were NKVD…” Meryem Kuku, the wife of Emir-Usein, tells. ‘Even children understood everything. The history has made a new round: in 1944 the Crimean Tatars were labeled “traitors” – now “extremists” and “terrorists.” Just like before we have been belied and slandered. I don’t know how come we bother Russia this much. By the very wish to live on our land?’

Since Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014, those whose views are different from the official line of the Russian Federation have been targeted for persecution. First of all, repressions fell on citizen journalists, public activists, independent journalists and everyone who has not been afraid to speak and openly condemn the activities of the occupation authority in the Crimea.

To date Ukrainian human rights organizations list 92 persons who are considered political prisoners. They are Ukrainian citizens imprisoned in the territory of the Russian Federation and the occupied Crimea. Part of them faces trumped-up charges due to their journalistic and human rights activity, as well as their religious beliefs.

‘Out of these 92 people, 88 are the Crimeans or people arrested in the Crimea. Among them 70 are the Crimean Tatars charged with “terrorism” and involvement in the Hizb ut-Tahrir movement, which in Russia is considered a terrorist organization, but legally operates in Ukraine,’ states Tetiana Pechonchyk, a human rights defender, Head of Board of the Human Rights Information Center NGO. ‘Why do we emphasize the cases of citizen journalists, activists, and human rights defenders? Part of these people, in our opinion, was imprisoned solely because it annoyed the occupation authorities by recording violations of human rights and persecutions of the Crimean Tatar community, reporting on politically motivated trials, searches, and arrests. And although they are allegedly charged with the terrorist activity, a genuine cause lies in their active citizenship. We believe they were deliberately chosen among many other Crimean Muslims – to pressurize and to prevent the information they collected from spreading.’

Not to Be Afraid and Not to Remain Silent: Citizen Journalism in the Crimea

Tetiana Pechonchyk asserts that the Human Rights Information Center recorded over 300 instances of persecutions of journalists in the Crimea for 6 years of occupation.

‘This is how professional independent journalism in the Crimea virtually ceased to exist as a phenomenon. Individual editorial offices and journalists were forced to move to the mainland and work in exile. Other professional journalists who remained on the peninsula decided to leave the profession, because they couldn’t work under pressure and censorship,’ the human rights defender explains. ‘However, there are those who sincerely welcomed the “Russian spring” and occupation of the Crimea: they work as propagandists and do not offer an objective picture of what’s going on there.’

Russian authorities have also prohibited entry of Ukrainian journalists into the Crimea – for some, as Taras Ibrahimov, the ban is in effect for several decades.

‘The Crimea has practically turned into an informational ghetto, where work of professional journalists and professional media is very complicated and dangerous. But there is a demand for information anyway, and someone has to speak about repressions, persecutions and pressure,’ explicates Tetiana Pechonchyk.

Since the Crimea’s annexation the Crimean Tatars have been labeled as “extremists” and “terrorists,” although a genuine reason of mass arrests is the citizenship and religious beliefs of the detained

Thus under occupation citizen journalism emerged. People, who had nothing to do with mass media, took mobile phones, tablets, cameras, and started filming and sharing on the Internet what was happening on the peninsula. Very rapidly they became nearly the only source of truthful information from the occupied Crimea.

Tetiana Pechonchyk says that first of all citizen journalists in the Crimea risk their safety, life and freedom. ‘Ten citizen journalists are now imprisoned in the Russian Federation and the occupied Crimea. The occupation authority charged them with terrorism and extremism. It especially concerns the Crimean Tatar citizen journalists from the Crimean Solidarity initiative,’ the human rights defender explains. ‘We believe that the reason for persecution of these people in particular was their active information activities and their attempts via the platform of the Crimean Solidarity and their own pages on social media to report on persecutions of the Crimean Tatars.’

Although there is no one clear definition of citizen journalism in international practice, human rights defenders and media experts outline the main characteristics of this phenomenon.

‘Citizen journalists are people without any professional experience in journalism who use modern tools and Internet technologies to create and spread information. They may also verify the reliability of information circulated by conventional media,’ says Olexandra Matviychuk, a human rights defender and Chairwoman of the Center for Civil Liberties. ‘In general, they speak in the first person, which underlines the subjective nature of their publications. These people may not even know about any journalism standards or principles of journalism ethics. But under certain conditions citizen journalism, specifically, is more effective than professional media. And the occupied Crimea is the prime example of it.’

Some compare the activities of citizen journalists with blogging, but they are not selfsame. Human rights defenders and media experts explain that blogging is about expressing one’s own opinion, commenting on this or that event, while citizen journalism includes reporting, when one simply records and broadcasts what one observes. To be a citizen journalist, just like a public activist or a human rights defender, in the Crimea is dangerous. Your equipment may be taken away or broken, you may be beaten, detained, imprisoned for a long term on fabricated charges, or you may simply disappear.

‘The occupation authority persecutes any dissent and any attempt to undermine the official narrative about the “happy smiling people” in the Crimea. Citizen journalists, human rights defenders and public activists, and any active people in the Crimea who publicly express their position or protect human rights and freedoms, and even those who just help others (come by the houses where searches are conducted, transfer parcels to SIZOs [pre-trial detention facilities], or collect funds for families who were left without the breadwinner), end up under the attack of the repression machine,’ Olexandra Matviychuk explains. ‘And citizen journalists carry out an exceptionally important function of serving the society. They took up this work, just because someone had to undertake these functions and this responsibility.’

A Story of Nariman Memedeminov

‘When early in the morning they come to your friend o your neighbor, force entry the house, put handcuffs on and accuse of terrible things which aren’t true – how can one stay aside? Perhaps, there are people who can only watch in quiet, but definitely not Nariman,’ says Lemara Memedeminova, wife of the imprisoned citizen journalist Nariman Memedeminov. ‘When he would come and stand during searches in houses of acquiantances and neighbors, he understood that only we see this, because there were no independent journalists left here. Then he just took out the phone and started recording all this and uploading to the Internet.’

Nariman Memedeminov is one of the Crimean citizen journalists who reported on what is happening in the Crimea after the annexation

Nariman Memedeminov is an economist and citizen journalist of the Crimean Solidarity initiative. Starting from 2014 he filmed on his phone and shared online the persecutions of the Crimean Tatars. Several times his home was searched. Russian security officers detained Nariman in March of 2018. He was charged with “public calls to terrorism via the Internet.” The cause for his arrest served his video blog on You Tube active from 2013 to 2015. It has several dozen of videos with commentaries on political events and calls to keep to the norms of Islam, stories about the culture and history of the Crimean Tatars. Russian prosecutor requested 6 years of imprisonment for Nariman. On the 2nd October 2019 the Russian Court announced the sentence: up to 2 years and 6 months of imprisonment in a settlement colony. Nariman have not pled guilty.

‘In fact, I have no illusions. The most important is that I am convinced of my rightness; I am convinced that the Crimean Tatars are no terrorists and no extremists. Persecution is politically motivated only because I spoke about and showed what is going on in the Crimea,’ Nariman Memedeminov said in the court and encouraged journalists to keep on speaking about what is happening on the peninsula.

Russian security officers first came to the house of Nariman and Lemara in February 2016. Then, Lemara Memedeminova recalls, the search was more or less calm – nobody broke the door down, or burst into the house, or threw anyone down on the floor. However, it was an attempt to plant on them the literature they had never had at home. It was a warning search, the first call for the Memedeminovs family signaling that they caught the attention of Russian security officers.

‘We understood that we were under surveillance by now and that any action of ours may lead to arrest. Relatives asked us what we were going to do if something happens. But the thought of leaving the Crimea didn’t even occur to us. Here is our home. Why should we leave it if we haven’t done anything bad?’ Lemara says. ‘And Nariman wouldn’t be able to leave to protect his family only. He is different. Such people will not leave their people in dark hours.’

Lemara Memedeminova recalls that for the most part searches in abodes of the Crimean Tatars occurred on Thursdays. ‘Waking up in the morning and getting ready for the prayer, the first thing each one of us did was look in the window. Right away. Automatically,’ she remembers. ‘Have they come for us yet? Or for the neighbor? Only then we would start going through the news feed on Facebook – while you sleep, there may be a search at your friends’ home.’

In the Crimea Nariman is awaited by his wife and three children

For the second time the FSB officers appeared on the doorstep of the Memedeminovs house in two years, in March of 2018. This time the visit was of a different nature. ‘They were beasts – no other words fit,’ Lemara reconstructs the chronology of events. ‘It was morning. We woke up from them breaking down our door with a crowbar. They burst in and threw Nariman onto the floor, pinned him down. I cannot imagine for what reason and with what thoughts one can do so. Knowing that there are little children in the house… I was terrified and fainted.’

Nariman Memedeminov was arrested. While he stayed in the Simferopol SIZO, he could not see his wife. For the first time Lemara went to see him to Rostov-on-Don, where Nariman was transferred from the Crimea. She visits her husband once a month.

‘I have last seen my husband on 10th of February; then he was in the SIZO in the town of Shakhty. In March I didn’t go because of the quarantine,’ Lemara says. ‘He looks all right. But he does have health problems. His joints and knees bother him, he has lower back pain. We constantly send him painkillers, ointments.’

Currently Nariman is again in the Rostov-on-Don SIZO.  On 14th of May the Vlasikha Military Court of Appeals in Moscow region upheld the court decision on imprisonment for 2.5 years in the settlement colony. It also reaffirmed the two-year ban for Nariman to administrate web pages. A lawyer of the political prisoner, Edem Semedliayev, says that at the moment they are preparing materials to apply to the European Human Rights Court.

Nariman Memedeminov has four month of imprisonment left.

Stories of Osman Arifmemetov, Rustem Sheykhaliyev, Remzi Bekirov and Ruslan Suleymanov 

On 27th of May 2019 Russian security officers in the occupied Crimea carried out mass searches in 26 houses of the Crimean Tatars, including those of Rustem Sheykhaliyev and Ruslan Suleymanov. The next day in Rostov-on-Don 3 more Crimean Tatars – among them Osman Arifmemetov and Remzi Bekirov, who regularly would go to Russia to report on trials of the Crimean Tatars and delivered them parcels from family – were arrested.

The “second Siferopol Hizb ut-Tahrir group” is the largest by the number of people simultaneously involved in one criminal case in the Crimea to date. Human rights defenders believe it is an instance of persecution on religious grounds. And in the case of Osman Arifmemetov, Rustem Sheykhaliyev, Remzi Bekirov and Ruslan Suleymanov it is also an assault on freedom of speech and expression. All four are citizen journalists of the Crimean Solidarity.

“Don’t move!” I heard a shout. Raising my head I saw people dressed in black, in black masks, lined in a wedge. My first thought was that it was some staged performance. Bulging eyes of the first one in the wedge and a gun directed at us in outstretched arms made it clear that this shout was addressed to me. My next thought was that it was some prank: CCTVs in McDonald’s, gunmen wedge-lined by the entrance, and us sitting at a table in the end of the hall.

(…) They hauled us to a minibus and viciously laid us between rows of seats with our knees and foreheads to the floor. When it started moving, they were hitting our backs with batons, walking on our backs, rummaging through pockets and my bag. They took out a road mat for prayer. Unfolded it and showed to one another, “Look, some flag. What is it? A flag?” they asked me in a rude and grim manner. I answered that it was a road mat. They took my watch off my wrist. All of this was accompanied by cursing and humiliating expressions.’

It is a fragment from a documentary story “My Deportation” written by Osman Arifmemetov in the SIZO and handed via his lawyer to the Qirim Inciri / Crimean Fig Literary Contest. There Osman describes how together with fellow Crimean Tatars he was arrested in Rostov-on-Don, brutally beaten, and then taken to the forest for further tortures.

Osman Arifmemetov faces 20 years of imprisonment for alleged involvement in the Hizb ut-Tahrir religious party, which is banned in Russia and legal in the terrirory of Ukraine. Photo credit: Taras Ibrahimov 

Osman Arifmemetov is a teacher of Math and Computer Science, a father of two children. When persecution and arrests of the Crimean Tatars began in the Crimea, he filmed all this and uploaded to the Internet. Now he is charged with involvement to the banned in Russia and legal in Ukraine religious party, Hizb ut-Tahrir. He faces 20 years of imprisonment.

A citizen journalist of the Crimean Solidarity and the Human Rights Crimean Contact Group, a father of three children, Rustem Sheykhaliyev, faces 20 years of imprisonment as well.

And Remzi Bekirov faces life sentence. The occupation authority charged him with the so-called “organization of activities of the terrorist organization.”

‘Remzi Bekirov is still under the preliminary investigation. For over a year now he has stayed in the pre-trial detention facility in inhumane conditions. There is only one pre-trial detention facility in the Crimea – it is in Simferopol. It was built in days of Catherine II and has not seen any renovation for a very long time. There are walls crumbling; there is mold; there are old beds from which many suffer back pain; there is lack of sunlight which causes problems with skin and teeth. There are much more people detained in that place, than should have been. The food does not meet any standards: neither religious, nor merely humane. Medical care is virtually non-existent. All our men are detained in such conditions,’ the lawyer Edem Semedliayev explains.

Ruslan Suleymanov also faces life sentence. He is a physicist by education; before the arrest he had given private classes and tutored.

‘With Ruslan we met long before his criminal persecution took place. Quite often we would meet during trials which he filmed on his phone. I have represented his interests since the beginning of his activism – Ruslan was repeatedly detained by police officers, specifically when he would hold one-man pickets with a poster “Crimean Tatars Are Not Terrorists”,’ tells the Crimean lawyer Lilya Hemedzi who defends Ruslan Suleymanov in court. ‘He had always been very active, always concerned for the destiny of the people, and those persecuted for political motives.’

Lilya Hemedzhi recalls how on 27th of March 2019 in the morning Ruslan’s wife called and informed their house was being searched. Suleymanov was arrested and in a few days along with others transferred to Rostov-on-Don. On 26th of March this year he was brought back to the Crimea, and just now they commenced the investigation.

Before the arrest Ruslan Suleymanov was a Physics teacher. After the annexation he took active part in protests and held one-man pickets with the poster “Crimean Tatars Are Not Terrorists”

‘Ruslan is very tenacious; he exudes positivity; he is not broken. Ruslan denied the proposal of the investigator to desist from the interpreter in exchange for the opportunity to meet his wife. He said, “I do not haggle about this, and I will be proving my innocence and following the path which I consider to be right.” Although he has not seen his wife and children for over a year, he is not able to call them, and letters do not always reach him,’ Lilya Hemedzhi says.

After reaching the pre-trial detention facility in Simferopol, Ruslan spent several days in the quarantine cell, the lawyer informs. This is a cell with a dome-shaped ceiling where one is able to stand upright only in the center of the room. ‘I visited him in the Simferopol pre-trial detention facility twice. The conditions he is staying at do not meet the sanitary standards. Moreover, it was during the quarantine period, but for the meeting with me and for the trial he was taken without any personal protective equipment,’ Hemedzhi says.

Stories of Emir-Usein Kuku and Server Mustafayev

On 11th of February 2016 the house of a Crimean human rights defender and member of the Human Rights Crimean Contact Group, Emir-Usein Kuku, was searched. He was arrested, and a criminal case was instituted against him for alleged “terrorism.”

‘On that day we woke up from a terrible tramp. I say, “Emir, is it them?’ And he replies, “Yes, came.” In 2 minutes our door was smashed, part of the wall came crashing down. Having burst in they pinned him onto the floor, put the handcuffs on. Reading the search warrant they were, in fact, already announcing the verdict. For all this justice, all the investigation is a gross formality: these people have already been appointed as terrorists,’ Meryem Kuku, the wife of Emir-Usein, recalls. ‘In their warrant they read that they were looking for explosives, weapons, ammunition, drugs and everything which may be related to terrorism. But nothing except for books they had not found.’

Nearly 4 years after the arrest – on 12th of November 2019 – the court announced the sentence for Emir-Usein Kuku: 12 years of imprisonment.

Meryem Kuku: ‘How come do we bother Russia this much? By the very wish to live on our land?’

‘Those whom they jailed did nothing bad. They convicted those whom everyone knows as decent people. True leaders who gathered the people together, who did something good within their community. None of us will ever believe in any terrorism among the Crimean Tatars,’ Meryem Kuku asserts.

Two years ago – on 21st of May 2018 – they arrested one more Crimean human rights defender, coordinator of the Crimean Solidarity, Server Mustafayev. He – just like the rest – is charged with terrorism.

‘On that day they carried out a search in his home – he saw freedom no more. No banned literature, weapon, no illegal substances were seized during the search. Over the course the investigation was completed, and now the case is handled by the Southern District Military Court in Rostov-on-Don. Server is staying at the pre-trial detention facility there,’ the lawyer defending Server Mustafayev in court, Lilya Hemedzhi, informs.

One of the trials was scheduled on 18th May 2020. ‘I see a deliberate link with the date,’ Hemedzhi remarks. ‘On a mournful for all Crimean Tatars day they carry out trials of their finest representatives.’

Speak Up

Lilya Hemedzhi believes that brutal searches and arrests are nothing but intimidation. ‘Not intimidation of one specific person but the entire people,’ she says. ‘So that after the arrest of one human rights defender or journalist, there would be no one to take his place and continue his work. They need the grey mass which will conform to the general course in the Crimea. For many years the Crimean Tatar people have carried out its peaceful and non-violent struggle. At first it concerned the right to return to the Homeland, then the defense of the property rights, and now it is happening in a different context, but never have the Crimean Tatar people taken up arms and crossed the line. It is a dissident people, the people manifesting its ideas peacefully.’

Until 2014 nobody had ever mentioned the Crimean Tatars in the context of terrorism or extremism. Human rights defenders attribute current criminal cases to the fact that the majority of the Crimean Tatars did not agree with what happened with the Crimea in 2014.

‘I think it is a kind of vengeance from Russia. When the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people took a hard line, it was right away declared an extremist organization,’ the lawyer Edem Semedlayev remarks. ‘At present the “Crimean terrorists” are the people in whose possession several books of religious essence were found. It is absolutely not about any bombs, weapons, or explosives that terrorism includes. These are politically motivated cases. And, naturally, we say that this is persecution on religious grounds. Whereas citizen journalists are persecuted for simply reporting on events in the Crimea.’

Server Mustafayev’s son Yunus by the photograph of his father in Bakhchysarai who faces 20 years of imprisonment

It is important to underline that there are citizen journalists and human rights defenders among the imprisoned and sentenced the Crimean Tatars. This gives a whole new degree to the cases, human rights defenders claim.

‘Drawing attention to them as journalists, to their activiteis they had been carrying out before being arrested breaks the pattern that these people are terrorists, that they are capable of killing or seizing power,’ Lilya Hemedzhi underlines. ‘Besides, it affects their treatment by the SIZO employees. They are afraid that they may have problems in case there will be any negative implications for these people, and because of this physical violence is not permitted.’

Human rights defenders emphasize that we have to draw attention to trials of political prisoners and attend them, whenever possible. ‘Thus we show that we will not abandon these people under any circumstances. Besides, when the cases are resonant, courts are careful not to enforce some illegal decisions openly, and even if they do, everything is recorded and serves as a basis for response from the international community,’ Hemedzhi points out.

‘When you speak, if only a morsel, but it changes. When you are silent, nothing happens,’ concludes Lemara Memedeminova. ‘Thus only if we speak shall the world find out what is actually happening in the Crimea with the Crimean Tatars.’  

First photo – Stas Yurchenko, Graty

Photos of the Crimea Realities and the Crimean Solidarity have been used in this material.

Mariia Semenchenko, exclusively for PEN Ukraine