For the second time in a month, Russian media have produced fake news stories about ‘terrorists’ after a prominent lawyer the first time and civic activists on both occasions were detained in Russian-occupied Crimea. The report on Feb 21 even used entirely false video footage that had nothing to do with the detention on ‘extremism’ charges of Crimean Tatar activist Marlen Mustafaev and then of 10 other Crimean Tatars who gathered outside his home and reported the arrest on social media.
TV Zvezda, a channel with connections to the Russian defence ministry, reported on Tuesday that 10 people had been detained on suspicion of links with Hizb ut-Tahrir. This pan-Islamist organization is legal in Ukraine and most countries, but has been labelled ‘terrorist’ in Russia and is currently being used to terrorise Crimean Muslims. The 19 Crimeans so far imprisoned include a human rights activist, men known for their civic position and one young Slav, probably arrested as a warning against converting to Islam.
The TV Zvezda feature was based on a report from the Russian state agency RIA Novosti report which cited Zaur Smirnov, one of the few Crimean Tatars to have collaborated with Russia after it invaded and annexed Crimea. Smirnov was also quoted as the official source for similar fabrication after lawyer Emil Kurbedinov and civic activist Seiran Saliev were arrested on Jan 26. Such distortion of the facts is doubtless ordered from above and there is very clearly a deliberately strategy underway to try to present Crimean Tatars and / or Crimean Muslims generally as a supposed hotbed of ‘radicalism’ and a threat.
There was, essentially, only one element of truth in all such Russian media reports – namely the fact of arrests. The rest was fiction, embellished in the case of TV Zvezda by video footage from some other place and time showing the storming of an apartment and men being pinned down on the floor.
The video implied that the armed men in masks were enforcing the law against those breaching it. The opposite was true.
On Feb 21, OMON riot police officers detained a young Crimean Tatar Marlen Mustafaev on his way to work and took him back to his home to carry out a search. Such armed visitations and searches have become frequent in Crimea and the news travels quickly. A number of Crimean Tatars gathered and began videoing and streaming the masked officers standing guard outside Mustafaev’s home. In a move obviously aimed at intimidation, one of the officers openly photographed the men who had gathered. They did not disperse and finally 10 men were themselves seized by the officers and taken away.
The men searching Mustafaev’s home removed technology and books, and took the young man to the so-called Centre for Countering Extremism. He was charged under Article 20.3 § 1 of the Code of Administrative Offences [CAO], supposedly for a social network post on VKontakte in July 2014 which allegedly showed a Hizb ut-Tahrir symbol.
The court hearing was as Kafkaesque as the charges. Emil Kurbedinov reports that all his applications – to call the prosecutor, the ‘expert’ who gave an opinion on the symbol, or even to examine screenshots of the purportedly offending material – were rejected. There was clearly an order to jail Mustafaev for 11 days, and, as in many other politically-motivated court hearings, judge Viktor Mozhelyansky obliged.
Kurbedinov was at least present at the hearing. The hearings in the case of at least some of the 10 other men detained for mere solidarity took place without lawyers being allowed into the courtroom. All ten men: Ruslan Suleimanov; Osman Arifmimetov; Remzi Bekirov; Medzhit Abdurakhmanov; Ablyakim Abdurakhmanov; Valid Abu Farid; Seiran Murtazaev; Alim Karimov; Reza Izetov; and Enver Tasinov were jailed for 5 days for supposed ‘infringement of the rules for holding a gathering, demonstration, etc.’.
The arrests and other repression began soon after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but over the last year there has been an escalation in measures aimed at deterring other Crimeans who come out in solidarity and to report on what is happening. If the first prosecutions in such cases resulted ‘only’ in large fines, now Russia is resorting to openly lawless methods against lawyers representing victims of persecution and others not afraid to come out and show their support.
Crimean Tatar leader Ilmi Umerov has called on Crimean Tatars to rally against such intimidation by showing even greater solidarity and determination to circulate information about all searches and arrests. Russia is using thuggish methods to terrorize the population of occupied Crimea, and the call to solidarity and the duty to ensure that they do not do so with impunity is on all of us.
By Halya Coynash, Human Rights in Ukraine