A military court in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don sentenced five Crimean Tatar defendants to 13 years in a strict-regime prison on January 11, having convicted them of participating in a “terrorist organization.”
Appeals notwithstanding -- including one filed with the European Court of Human Rights prior to Russia’s exclusion from the Council of Europe -- the sentences bring to an end the prosecution of the so-called “25 Case,” under which 25 Crimean Tatar men who were detained in Crimea in 2019 were sentenced to long terms in Russian prisons.
The men were all convicted of participating in the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic political organization that was banned as extremist in Russia in 2003 but is legal in Ukraine. However, Russian Prosecutor Yevgeny Kolpikov, at the sentencing of the first five defendants in March 2022, summed up the accusations against the men quite differently.
“They repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with the policies and the security forces of the Russian state,” Kolpikov told the court. “Their guilt has been proven in court.”
Supporters of the men say they are being silenced for their work with the human-rights organization Crimean Solidarity, a network that has monitored and publicized evidence of crimes and rights violations by the Russian occupation authorities and the Russian military since Moscow sent troops to Crimea and seized control of the Ukrainian region in 2014. Since that time, local and international rights monitors have charged that Russia has targeted the Muslim Crimean Tatar minority with harassment, criminal prosecutions, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and abuse while in custody.
“When the repressions began in Crimea against the native Crimean Tatar people, there were searches, arrests, disappearances of Crimean Tatar activists, and so on,” said Khalide Bekirova, the wife of activist Remzi Bekirov, who was sentenced to 19 years in prison in March 2022. “So my husband began working as a citizen journalist. He is a historian by education, but the need to help his fellow Muslims and his countrymen prompted him to take his cellphone and document searches, arrests, and court hearings.”
For years, Bekirova said, her husband received warnings, summonses, and threats because of his activism. Finally, in March 2019, he was arrested as part of a massive campaign against Crimean Solidarity activists.
On March 27, 2019, the 25 Case got under way when Russian security forces carried out searches in 26 different locations in Crimea. Twenty men were arrested that day, while four more were arrested on March 28 and April 17. The last defendant, Eskender Suleymanov -- the brother of one of the men arrested in the initial round-up -- was arrested in June.
Crimean rights activist Lutfiye Zudiyeva said the 25 Case is the most wide-reaching criminal prosecution carried out by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) since the region was occupied in 2014.
“Prosecutors were forced to take the unprecedented step of dividing the defendants up into five groups,” she said, noting that it would have been difficult to place all 25 men in the special cage where criminal defendants sit during Russian court hearings. “Of course, the goal was to destroy the work of the Crimean Solidarity rights movement, with which most of the defendants were associated. That’s why the case was so broad.”
All 25 of the men have been designated as political prisoners by the Russian human rights group Memorial, which itself was banned by the Russian state in April 2022.
The men were transferred to the southern Russian city of Rostov-on Don, where their trials were held in a military court. The trials, defense lawyer Edem Semedlyayev said, were “illegitimate,” based on the testimony of witnesses whose identities were concealed.
“In the indictment, there are many passages with ‘undetermined’ dates and ‘undetermined’ people and ‘undetermined’ times,” Semedlyayev said. “That is, there were many undetermined facts, which made defense impossible. And all the accusations were based on this, but nonetheless the judges handed down sentences of 17 or 19 years.”
Much of the evidence was based on edited fragments of audio recordings in which the defendants allegedly discussed political and religious topics with the concealed witnesses. No illegal or banned materials were found during the initial searches, defense lawyers told RFE/RL’s Crimea.Realities.
“Under questioning, it became clear that these witnesses did not even know the defendants,” Semedlyayev said. “Whenever we asked clarifying questions, they answered, ‘I don’t know.’ They didn’t know how tall [the defendants] are. They didn’t know their approximate ages, even though they testified that they met with these people every week in the mosque for a whole year. But when we started digging deeper and asked them to describe the mosque -- How many stories did it have? Did it have a minaret or not? -- they just said, ‘We don’t remember.’”
The judges regularly halted the hearings when the concealed witnesses were unable to answer questions, he added.
In addition, the audio recordings, which were edited and fragmentary, were evaluated by experts with connections to the FSB, Semedlyayev charged.
“They have in-house institutes and in-house experts who are able to say that any conversation of this type is evidence of an exchange between Hizb ut-Tahrir members,” he said.
'Such Events Need To Be Brought To Light'
In all, more than 80 Crimean Tatars have been accused of being connected with Hizb ut-Tahrir, and more than 50 are serving terms in Russian prisons, according to the Crimean Tatar Resource Center.
“The Russian Federation misuses its legislation for political purposes, in particular to suppress the nonviolent struggle of the Crimean Tatars and their protest against the occupation of Crimea,” the center wrote in a July statement. “The Crimean Tatar Resource Center demands the cancelation of all sentences against those involved in the Hizb ut-Tahrir case and the immediate release of other political prisoners.”
The crackdown on the Crimean Solidarity movement is an effort by the Russians to cover up their actions in Crimea, activist Zudiyeva said.
“A person finds himself in the defendant’s cage and it is perfectly clear they will be convicted and sent to prison with a long term,” she said. “Of course, such events need to be brought to light. People need to be told about them. And that is why (the Russian authorities) don’t like any human-rights or media organizations. It isn’t just a matter of Crimean Solidarity -- this is how they treat all activists and journalists in Crimea and in present-day Russia.”
In his closing statement to the court in March 2022 shortly before he was sentenced to 17 years in prison, activist Raim Aivazov remained defiant.
“I have no doubt that you will convict me,” he told the judges. “But remember, you will reap the fruits you have sown. I am sure history will remember us as martyrs of a criminal regime and you as tools in the hands of tyrants.”
The Crimean Tatars are a Muslim Turkish ethnic group that settled in Crimea as early as the 13th century. After the Russian colonization of Crimea in the 18th century, Crimean Tatars -- who formed a large majority on the peninsula at the time -- were subjected to violent repressions and legal discrimination. In 1944, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin forcibly deported the entire Crimean Tatar population to Uzbekistan and other parts of the Soviet Union, causing catastrophic loss of life. They were only allowed to return en masse after 1989. According to the Ukrainian census of 2001, there were 240,000 Crimean Tatars living in Crimea.