12 Mar 2014 12:40
Crimean Tatars fear persecution under Russian authority
As Tatars in Crimea seek to preserve their way of life - their language, cultural and religious practices, and political organizations - under Russian authority, a crackdown on voices of dissent from within their community and on Tatar leadership doesn’t seem to be letting up.
On October 6, another young man, 25-year-old Edam Asanov of Bilogorsk was found dead after disappearing on September 29 while protesting the kidnapping of two young men from the community just days earlier. This is the latest in a string of kidnappings, raids and arrests that have shook the Crimean Tatar community in recent months.
Since the first Russian incursions into Ukraine’s Crimea region in February, ethnic Tatars have feared a return to the kinds of persecution and mistreatment the Muslim minority has historically suffered under Russian administration. Events since then seem to highlight the precariousness of their situation.
Days before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, on March 18 hundreds of members of the Tatar community gathered in a cemetery in Simferopol to pay their respects to Reshat Ametov, a 39-year-old found dead after having been missing for over two weeks. According to the local Tatar television channel ATR, police found the tortured body of the activist in a forest outside the Crimean capital. Investigators presumed he was killed by pro-Russian militiamen after he was seen crossing a line of pro-Russian protesters in military fatigues at a protest earlier in the month. The death came as a great blow to the Muslim Tatar community for whom persecution, deportation and violence remain vivid memories.
After the funeral, Remzie Dzhemilev, 87, gathered his family and recounted their history. Like the majority of Crimean Tatars, the Dzhemilevs were deported to Uzbekistan in 1944, a seemingly endless journey by wagon during which six of his family members died. The survivors returned to the Crimea in 1990 after the fall of the former USSR, and have remained there since. Mainly opposed to Russia, today he says that the community tries to preserve their traditions and culture, from language and religion to flags and national symbols, despite increasing fears that renewed Russian control of the Crimea will revisit suffering upon the Muslim minority.
Originating in the great steppes of Central Asia, the Turkic-speaking Tatars were one of the main ethnic groups of Crimea leading up to World War II. Their historical influence on the region is visible in Simferopol’s art and architecture and in their specific relationship to the land. Up until the 18th century, the Crimean Khanate was among the most powerful Muslim states in Central Europe.
Today, Tatars account for just over 10% of the population in this region of south-eastern Ukraine, in particular due to waves of deportations driven by Stalin in 1944. Called the “Sürgünlük” in Crimean Tatar dialect, these deportations led to the relocation of nearly 240,000 Tatars. Those who escaped deportation were often shot on sight, had their boats sunk, or died of cold and hunger trying to flee. Many were also deported to Soviet GULAGs where they would work as indentured servants.
Today, a delicate political situation has ethnic Russians in Crimea rejoicing over their annexation while historically marginalized Muslim Tatars and their organizations feel they have become the targets of a new brand of authoritarian rule from Russia and violence from militant pro-Russian activists. In April and July, the chairman of the Crimean Tatar People’s Movement Mustafa Dzhemilev and Simferopol’s Tatar leader Refat Chubarov were banned from re-entering Crimea for five years. Later, in May, Crimean authorities banned public protests and closed central Simferopol to prevent Tatars from commemorating the deportation.
More recently in September armed, masked men raided the Majlis, the Tatar’s self-governing council in Simferopol, removing a weapon, hard drives and “extremist literature,” according to the Russian Foreign Ministry. Mr. Dzhemilev told the UK daily The Telegraph that he equated this to a robbery.
"The Crimean Tatar nation is now in a most complicated and dangerous position since it has always spoken out against the illegal occupation [of Crimea by Russia]," Dzhemilev said.
Dzhemilev’s son was detained by Russian authorities on murder and weapons charges that he says were acquitted by a Ukrainian court. In a press conference on October 4, he told reporters that his son’s arrest by Russians was “blackmail by Putin.” “The Russians continue to play it in a heavy-handed, Soviet and blatant way,” he said.
Kidnappings, arrests and raids now amount to what Tatar leaders consider an officially sanctioned campaign of harassment and intimidation. On September 27, two more young Tatar men were kidnapped while walking down the street in their native Belogorsk. Witnesses saw a white van pull up next to the men, and throw them inside. 18-year-old Islyam Dzheparov and 23-year-old Dzhebdet Islyamov have not been seen or heard from since then, according to an October 3 report by Radio Free Europe.
"I think it is outrageous, completely outrageous,” Mustafa Asaba, the head of the regional Crimean Tatar Mejlis in Belogorsk, told RFE. “If there were some questions for these young people or anything like that, there are official organs, the police. They could have been summoned for questioning."
Russian authorities in Crimea launched an investigation into the disappearances. However, Tatars in Belogorsk feel that they are being driven into a corner based only on their ethnicity and religion.
"This is an attack on Crimean Tatars," one activist told a gathering of over a hundred locals who came together to pray for the men and protest the disappearances. "Our only guilt is that we are Crimean Tatars, Muslims. I don't see any other motives here.”
Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muiznieks brought up the issues facing the Tatars at a meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on October 1.
"My biggest concern, to be honest, is the situation of the Crimean Tatars -- a population with a very tragic history," Muiznieks said. "There is an urgent need to strengthen their sense of security, which has been shattered by a series of raids by armed, masked security personnel in religious institutions, schools, Tatar-owned businesses, private homes, and, after my visit, to the Mejlis. The Crimean Tatars have no history of violence or extremism, and the raids are completely disproportionate and should be stopped.”
-- Joe Lukawski with reporting by Rafael Yaghobzadeh for Transterra Media