Six years ago, Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Since then, the Crimean Tatars -- who almost unanimously opposed and resisted the Russian takeover -- have been targeted for repressions. According to a 2015 report by Human Rights Watch, most of the 63 Crimeans held in Russian jails and prisons were Crimean Tatars.
Earlier this month, Ukrainian human rights ombudswoman Lyudmyla Denisova announced that 86 Crimean Tatars are on the government’s list of some 200 names for negotiations with Russia over the next exchange of prisoners.
RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Aleksandra Vagner spoke with Crimean Tatar activist Mumine Saliyeva, whose husband, Seiran Saliyev, was arrested along with five other Crimean Tatars in October 2017. He currently faces charges of terrorism and attempting to violently overthrow the government. His trial is being held in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and he could be sentenced to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Saliyeva has founded a group called Crimean Childhood that provides assistance to the nearly 200 children of Crimean Tatars currently being held by Russia.
She spoke to RFE/RL about the situation in Crimea and about the Crimean Tatars’ tactics of peaceful resistance aimed at countering the repression against them.
RFE/RL: It has been six years since Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Do you remember how you felt at the time? How did you react to the events of those days?
Mumine Saliyeva: The majority of people in Crimea refer to that time as “the Crimean spring,” but for all the Crimean Tatars, it was a completely different spring. No one knew how to respond at first. People spoke of war, of revolution, of removing the government. This led Crimean Tatars to come together and to organize mini-brigades to defend the small areas where we were living, to defend our homes. Men stood guard in shifts because no one knew what to expect from the armed people [who appeared]. The situation boiled over on February 26 , when there were disturbances in Simferopol and the injured had to be removed in ambulances.
But the first blow aimed specifically at the Crimean Tatars came on March 3, when Reshat Ametov held a one-person protest. Later he was found mutilated. A person who did nothing but express his opinion was found dead, brutally murdered. Of course, that frightened everyone and they understood that this would not be over in a day, a week, or a month. We began to see that cases of abduction and torture were not exceptions. We saw people disappear without a trace. For instance, [Chairman of the World Congress of Crimean Tatars] Ervin Ibrahimov. Or the son and nephew of human rights activist Abdureshit Dzhepparov. Crimea was transformed into a gray zone because almost no independent journalists remained.
Then the first arrests came, and the Crimean Tatar community -- which up until 2014 had lived peacefully and which was largely convinced that it was best to remain outside of politics -- changed. When the arrests came, people understood that any right, any point of view, any opinion that contradicted the line of the totalitarian government would be punished. And the lives of many people changed. People who had never thought about resisting or defending their community or one another began doing just that.
RFE/RL: What happened to your family as a result of the annexation?
Saliyeva: Our family, of course, was also profoundly affected. My husband and I had lived together a long time, raising our children. I studied and wrote a dissertation in economics. My husband is an educator and he led excursions for tourists. He also worked with children and raised money to help children with cancer. We were forced to give up all this and take up exclusively human rights and journalistic work.
We began attending the court hearings which were launched in Crimea as if on a conveyor belt. There were cases involving Hizb ut-Tahrir [a Muslim organization that is banned in Russia as “extremist,” but which is legal in Ukraine and says it is nonviolent], cases related to the February 26 [2014 clashes]. We began speaking out on social media because, as I mentioned before, there were no independent journalists left and we needed to get information from Crimea to those journalists working away from the peninsula. My husband and I knew that anyone doing this work would attract attention, but he said that it was our duty to our people and a matter of justice, honesty, and even honor.
RFE/RL: Your husband is accused of terrorism and attempting to violently overthrow the government in connection with the so-called second Bakhchysaray Hizb ut-Tahrir group. It was known right from the annexation that Hizb ut-Tahrir is banned in Russia and many members of that organization fled to mainland Ukraine. Why did your family decide to stay?
Saliyeva: We don’t think it matters whether the arrested were members of Hizb ut-Tahrir or not. That is not the main reason why they are persecuted. We understand that Crimean Tatars are, in terms of their faith, Muslims who have lived in Crimea and practiced their faith here. Now a new government has come and we are supposed to rewrite history and renounce our beliefs and views? That doesn’t make any sense and isn’t right because the Crimean Tatar identity is formed around the religion that we practice. And now they are charging people who have lived and practiced their religion in Crimea for more than 20 years -- it is completely illegal. It means they are attacking our culture. And there are many other cases that have nothing to do with Hizb ut-Tahrir…that are indicative and are used in Crimea to persecute [Crimean Tatars].
We see the big picture -- what people are arrested for and what is going on. It is enough for a person to show up at a trial and show some solidarity for them to start opening administrative cases against him. After that, if he doesn’t give up his activity, his administrative case is smoothly transformed into a criminal case. This is what happened to my husband.
Before this mechanism was worked out, it happened like this: people showed up at houses during searches by the authorities; they began live streaming the happenings on their phones; the police knocked the phones out of their hands and, sometimes, gave them a whack on the head with their batons. So, we can see that…in Crimea they are not arresting people for belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir but merely for having a particular point of view, for owning certain religious literature, or for speaking about religion. The Sevastopol Hizb ut-Tahrir people were arrested for talking in their kitchens. The first Bakhchysaray group was arrested for conversations in a backroom. The second Bakhchysaray group, which included my husband, was arrested for conversations in a mosque. It should be noted that the mosque is a public space. Anyone can go there, regardless of their faith. It is an open place. And it is natural that when people go to a mosque, they speak about religion. But that became an excuse to arrest people and to give them prison sentences that they don’t even hand down to murderers.
So, we understand that their basic motivation is our political and religious opinions, as well as our public activity. In Russia there is no law against journalism. There is no law against human rights work. There is no law against public activity. But there are convenient laws on so-called terrorism that enable you to arrest dozens of people who are practicing their religion. There is a law on extremism that enabled them to simply ban the representative organ of the Crimean Tatars -- the Mejlis -- and to kick its leadership out of Crimea without the right to return. These are laws that, unfortunately, are being used by the authorities in Crimea exclusively as a tool of repression.
RFE/RL: The organization Crimean Solidarity started as a reaction to this repression.
Saliyeva: A lot of people understood that the repressions were intended to decapitate the active part of our society so that it would be easier to turn the remainder into a passive body that would agree to anything. The goal was to eventually show the international community that everything is fine in Crimea; that everyone there is happy with the new authorities; that new roads and schools and kindergartens are being built; in short, that life is beautiful!
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But as long as there are people in Crimea who are providing other information and as long as that information makes its way out of Crimea, it is difficult to paint such a “beautiful” picture. That is why the authorities have undertaken such efforts to stop broadcasting from Crimea and to block any leak of information from there.
This continued when all the court proceedings were closed [to the media and public]. That is the practice to the present day, so that no information gets beyond the courtroom walls and the public has no way of finding out what twisted counterarguments the judges, prosecutors, and investigators use in order to apply articles [of the Criminal Code] that result in the most inhuman prison terms.
As of now, more than 10 of those arrested are civic journalists; others are human rights activists and lawyers from Crimean Solidarity. Anyone can see that today in Crimea there is a war against activism, against people who express a religious or political point of view. We are seeing repression on the basis of religion and ethnicity.
Crimean Tatars understand this, and this understanding has united people. I have never seen such solidarity before. This consolidation is a unique phenomenon in Crimea over the last six years because during all these years we have been providing mutual support for one another. Our unity helps us overcome all our difficulties. And these difficulties have not affected one or two or three people, but our entire ethnic community. This is a complicated situation because what is happening today to the Crimean Tatars is the repression of an entire nation.
Crimean Tatars live in very close extended-family networks. If you consider that several dozen Crimean Tatars have already been arrested and that every one of them has hundreds or thousands of relations, you can see that misfortune has struck every third Crimean Tatar home. That is why we can say that we are seeing the repression of an entire nation.
A lot of us see this as nothing less than “hybrid deportation.” In 1944, they called us criminals and deported the Crimean Tatar nation out of Crimea. Today, in a comparable way, they are hanging the label “criminal” on us by calling us “terrorists” and “extremists” and “separatists.” They load people up in police vans and cart them off to Russian prisons. But even though my husband has sat in prison for more than two years facing serious charges and a possible prison term of 20 years, I really respect our ability to consolidate and offer resistance -- nonviolent resistance.
RFE/RL: They are still driving journalists out of Crimea. Taras Ibrahimov, who covered the arrests of Crimean Tatars, has been banned from entering Crimea for 34 years.
Saliyeva: After 2014, activists from Crimean Solidarity took up journalism because all the professionals had been driven out but someone had to speak about the situation. I’m talking about civic journalists -- mothers, builders, teachers. But they took on this function -- and my husband was among them. There were some who risked coming to Crimea and working here, including journalist and photographer Alina Smutko and journalists Alyona Savchuk and Taras Ibrahimov. I think the ban imposed on him was a message to other journalists not to speak about the situation in Crimea. And the term of his ban -- dozens of years -- is a type of deportation. It is a serious indication of how afraid the authorities are of media coverage of what is going on in Crimea.
RFE/RL: In addition to civic journalism, you are still helping the children of imprisoned Crimean Tatars. How many children have been left without fathers because of the arrests of the last six years?
Saliyeva: In Crimea, they are specifically arresting the most noble, courageous, and morally strong men. Almost all the arrested -- and there are more than 60 of them -- are, for instance, European taekwondo champions, political scientists, lawyers, restoration experts, businessmen, teachers. That is, the strongest social layer of the Crimean Tatar people.
We aren’t afraid for these people, particularly for the men. But I also don’t particularly worry about the women. But the children caught up in this story are the most vulnerable and defenseless creatures. They can’t understand or accept that they saw their beloved fathers face down on the floor in handcuffs. This has a profound effect on a child’s psyche.
When they shut the door behind my husband, I just looked at our children and understood that something had to be done. On the day that my husband was taken, five other Crimean Tatar men were also arrested. The number of involved children increased by 100. That was a round figure that made a big impression on me. In March 2019, there were more arrests and that figure grew. Today, we are talking about 198 children, of whom 168 are minors. Ten children were born after their fathers were arrested -- they don’t know their fathers and have never seen them.
Some of the children are disabled; some have serious illnesses. I understood that we needed to work with these children, to help them adapt and to at least get over their pain, to get them through the situation and unite them -- to show them that they are not alone in their pain.
RFE/RL: Do your children see their father? Are you able to visit him? Or do you try to protect the children from the trauma of seeing their father behind bars?
Saliyeva: My husband and I discussed such things even before he was arrested. After all, my husband was already being summoned under administrative charges and given fines. Only later was he arrested. My husband said that we had the chance to isolate our children by leaving. But if we remain together with our people, living here, then it is not realistic to think we can isolate and protect them.
My husband said: “Explain it to them in simple terms. Tell them often. Take them to visit other families so that our children can see that there are other children whose fathers are in prison.” I do not regret that I took my husband’s advice and explained all these things to our children. When [the authorities] came to our house armed to the teeth, the children did not experience the maximum shock because they had seen the examples of other families. I do not isolate my children from possible visits with my husband because they need them. And no matter how hard it is for them, these visits give them positive emotions. Every visit is unique and memorable.
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Unfortunately, we were not able to visit him for a year and a half because the authorities did not give permission, as a form of pressure against the defendants and against their families. They didn’t even explain why they reject our requests. My children and I were able to see my husband for a year and a half. We had only one chance to speak with him, in the corridor at a court hearing. I saw him two more times in Crimea.
Last September, they took him to Rostov-on-Don and I saw him one more time. Just imagine -- to travel from Crimea to Rostov is 700 kilometers. It took 12 hours. A few months ago, I took a chance and took the children there for a visit. It was a very difficult trip -- 12 hours sitting, but the children did it. I could see how hard it was for them -- they were fidgeting and trying to lie down. But none of them said a word.
In the end, a father saw his children and they are now living on the strength of those memories. That is why I think it would have been wrong to isolate them. If I thought that in a year or two it would all be over, then maybe I would have done things differently. But when you don’t know the future and you don’t know how long things will drag out, but life is continuing and you have to live…. On the one hand, you have the children. On the other, your husband, about whom you must also think. Those visits are very important for him. So we try to go whenever we can -- to attend hearings or arrange a visit.
RFE/RL: You said that you see your activity as a form of nonviolent resistance. Despite your troubles, do you still think that nonviolent resistance can bring an end to the repressions that began after the annexation?
Saliyeva: I try to look at the big picture. I understand that fundamental change requires political will. Or there must be some serious international negotiations. Average people are not going to resolve these issues. In order to fundamentally change the situation in Crimea and the situation of the political prisoners, it will take the political will of nations, of the heads of governments. It is hard for us to influence this. That’s one thing.
But from another perspective, the Crimean Tatars have enormous experience. When you look at how the Crimean Tatars were deported and how even in exile they sought a mechanism to enable them to return to Crimea and the people actually did return to their homeland. And then they fought for and achieved their rights because they were united and used peaceful resistance. So, I do believe in this with all my heart. Our grandmothers and grandfathers returned to Crimea and thought that they would build a happy future for the next generation. But then the situation changed and we all experienced déjà vu. Our elders began to remember what had happened to them and they shared this experience with us. This altered the relationship between the older generation and the younger. Such closeness did not exist before, such sympathy. My mother-in-law dug out some old papers and we learned to our horror that my husband’s grandfather had been shot under three criminal charges that are analogous to those my husband faced. The wording was different and the numbers were different, but essentially the tribunal of the NKVD [Stalin’s secret police] delivered absolutely comparable verdicts.
People share their experiences and tell us everything. And that is hugely inspiring. So I do believe that our peaceful resistance will inevitably produce results. In fact, it already is. Even today we can see that when hundreds of people are fined for defending the nation and people all pitch in 10 rubles each and the fines are paid -- that is a result. When women emerge from maternity hospitals with their newborns while their husbands are in prison, the nation meets those women. That is a result and those women do not feel so alone. When people every month write hundreds and hundreds of letters under an initiative called “Write, my people!” and the men sitting in prison awaiting trial are given packets of letters -- that is also a result. There are many such initiatives. Our Children is a social group that collects money for the children of political prisoners and gives it out to them each month. That is also a result. All these are forms of nonviolent resistance.
When they arrested my husband, people throughout Crimea came out and held one-person protests the very next day. More than 100 protests in one day. People came out with signs saying, “Our children aren’t terrorists. Crimean Tatars are not terrorists.” And that is a response to the repression that is happening in Crimea. It is also a result. We can see that we are helping people get over these difficulties. Of course, I believe without a doubt that this will eventually lead to victory and our men will be released from prison. Why do I often say that my husband to me is the personification of peaceful resistance? Because he never forgets to remind me that I am not fighting for him but for the freedom of all the prisoners. And I say, “Of course.” When I tell him to be strong and that he will be freed, he corrects me. “Not me. All of us.” I smile and say, “Yes, yes. All of you.”
I know that my heart will not rest even if he is released, if anyone else remains.