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Snatched In Plain Sight: No Justice In Crimean Tatar's Slaying Five Years After Russian Annexation

A file photo of Reshat Ametov with one of his children. The Crimean Tatar activist's killing in 2014 is still unsolved.
A file photo of Reshat Ametov with one of his children. The Crimean Tatar activist's killing in 2014 is still unsolved.

Two of the men who seized and frog-marched Reshat Ametov into the backseat of a waiting car wore green military fatigues. The third, wearing black civilian clothes, closed the rear door behind the captive and watched the dark-colored hatchback speed away.

The abduction unfolded in early March 2014 in front of the Council of Ministers building in the capital of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, where Russian troops in uniforms without insignia had begun seizing key government buildings days earlier.

Video of the incident shows what are believed to be the last known images of Ametov, a 39-year-old Crimean Tatar who had come to the central square in Simferopol that day to protest Russia's invasion, while he was still alive.

Nearly two weeks later, the father of three's body was discovered in a forest some 60 kilometers to the east. A lawyer for the Crimean Tatars' self-governing body, the Mejlis, went to the local prosecutor's office shortly thereafter and said the corpse showed "clear signs of torture." The cause of death, according to Ametov’s brother, was a stab wound to the eye.

Russian authorities, whose control of Crimea is rejected as illegitimate by the Mejlis and 100 UN members, pledged a thorough investigation into the killing of Ametov, widely seen in Ukraine and among Crimean Tatars as an early martyr to the cause of opposing Russia's takeover.

The Russian government itself said eight months later that nearly 300 witnesses had been questioned and that authorities were doing "everything necessary" to bring those responsible for Ametov's death to justice.

But despite these purported efforts and the fact that Ametov's kidnapping was captured on camera in broad daylight, his slaying remains unsolved five years after locals found his battered corpse on March 15, 2014 -- three days before Russia formally annexed Crimea.

"It was the first forced disappearance in the history of occupied Crimea," Tamila Tasheva, head of a civic group that tracks rights abuses on the peninsula, said at a recent protest outside the Russian Embassy in Kyiv. "But no one has conducted any real investigation since then."

Video Evidence

After Russia's seizure of Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged equal rights for Crimean Tatars, who were brutally deported en masse to Central Asia by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1944 and only began returning to the peninsula in the late 1980s.

A Moscow-backed Crimean Tatar politician went so far as to say that the predominantly Muslim minority, which constitutes some 12 percent of Crimea's population, was "under the reliable protection of the state."

But Crimean Tatars, Western governments, and rights watchdogs say Russian authorities have subjected members of the community and others who oppose Russian rule to a range of abuses, including politically motivated prosecutions based on trumped-up charges.

Russia "continues to apply its laws, in violation of international humanitarian law applicable to an occupying power, resulting in grave human rights violations, disproportionately affecting Crimean Tatars," the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said in its most recent report on the situation in Ukraine.

As of August 2018, at least 44 people had been subjected to forced disappearances in Crimea since Russia's seized the peninsula, including six -- all of them Crimean Tatars -- who turned up dead, according to Tasheva's group, the Kyiv-based CrimeaSOS. Another 15, including 11 Crimean Tatars, had yet to be found, the organization said.

In all but three of these disappearances -- including that of Ametov and two other Crimean Tatars later discovered dead -- CrimeaSOS says that "there are facts indicating the involvement of Russian state bodies."

The most substantive publicly available evidence in Ametov's abduction is the video of the incident in front of the Council of Ministers building on March 3, 2014. The video, which was published online weeks after the incident, does not indicate that Ametov was kidnapped by the so-called "Little Green Men," Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms who were seizing Crimean state facilities at the time and whose Russian provenance Putin initially denied.

But it does suggest that Ametov's abductors may have been part of -- or working with the consent of -- so-called "self-defense" forces, pro-Russian activists who provided street muscle during Moscow's military takeover of Crimea.

Unlike the "Little Green Men," the two men in military green who forced Ametov into the car were not openly brandishing weapons or wearing masks. And their garb resembled that of the "self-defense" units patrolling throughout Crimea at the time.

Furthermore, the video shows that Ametov was snatched just meters in front of a man sporting a red armband typically worn by members of the "self-defense" units that were working in lockstep with Russian forces in Crimea.

The video shows a fourth man in civilian clothes standing near the car that Ametov was forced into. As Ametov tries in vain to resist being shoved into the back seat, that man walks behind the vehicle and climbs into the front passenger seat before the car takes off.

'Neat And Tidy'

A month after Ametov's body was found, the Russia-installed head of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, dismissed suggestions that "self-defense" members were involved in the abduction as "unfounded accusations."

"It's just a bunch of rumors. In any investigation, you have to look for those who benefited from it at the time," Aksyonov told a news conference.

In October 2014, Aksyonov pledged to reward law enforcement officers who solve Ametov's killing and said that authorities were investigating the disappearances of four other Crimean Tatars.

Six weeks later, the Russian government told the UN Human Rights Committee that more than 270 witnesses had been questioned in Ametov's death, and that "over 50 forensic analyses and some 50-plus examinations have been carried out."

"Everything necessary is being done to identify the perpetrators of the crime," it said.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (left) presents a Hero of Ukraine award for Reshat Ametov to his brother in March 2018.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (left) presents a Hero of Ukraine award for Reshat Ametov to his brother in March 2018.

In the ensuing years, the investigation has been periodically halted and restarted, according to Ametov's family members and friends.

Ametov's widow, Zarina, did not respond to an interview request for this report. Attempts to arrange an interview with his brother, Refat Ametov, were unsuccessful. But a year after his brother's disappearance, Refat said that the men who took Reshat away had been questioned by investigators and subsequently released.

"It's lined up in such a way that they have alibis saying they didn't do it. These people lawyered up. Everything was neat and tidy," Refat Ametov told RFE/RL's Crimea Desk in March 2015.

Neither the office of Aksyonov, who is still the Russia-backed leader in Crimea, nor the Russian Investigative Committee branch on the peninsula responded to requests for comment on the status of the case.

In a statement earlier this month, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission to Ukraine said it had "received information that indicates Crimean self-defense's involvement in Ametov's disappearance and killing."

The mission told RFE/RL that its information is based on interviews with "a number of people," including Ametov's relatives and activists at pro-Ukrainian rallies at the time of his disappearance, as well as an analysis of the video of his abduction.

It added, however, that it "cannot disclose information that may lead to the identification of sources" without their consent.

"We are not an investigative authority. It is the responsibility of the government of the Russian Federation, as an occupying power in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol, Ukraine, to investigate Reshat Ametov's enforced disappearance and death," the mission said in an e-mailed statement.

'Standing Protest'

Ametov, whose youngest child was born less than three months prior to his death, had announced his intention to protest outside the Council of Ministers building in Simferopol just days before his abduction.

"It was absolutely typical behavior for him," Lerane Khaibullayeva, a friend of Ametov's family, told RFE/RL. "He is a patriot of his land. He considered the people who came to Crimea [in the spring of 2014] to be thieves."

Khaibullayeva said Ametov was particularly concerned about the fate of the Crimean Tatar language, and that he had a "heightened sense of justice."

"He always took action, and didn't just sit around grumbling or discussing some issue at home in the kitchen. He got up and did something," she said.

According to his wife, Ametov left their house at 7:30 a.m. on the day he disappeared, saying he was going to a military recruitment office. She said she became concerned because it was his habit to regularly let her know where he was -- and she hadn't heard from him in more than 24 hours.

Khaibullayeva, who says her mother saw Ametov leaving his home for the last time, recalls his wife running down the street in tears to tell a relative that he had disappeared. "The kids were running behind her yelling, 'Mama!'" Khaibullayeva says.

Reshat Ametov (right) stands near a masked Russian soldier and a man wearing a red armband typical of the so-called "self-defense" forces shortly before the Crimean activist's abduction in March 2014.
Reshat Ametov (right) stands near a masked Russian soldier and a man wearing a red armband typical of the so-called "self-defense" forces shortly before the Crimean activist's abduction in March 2014.

Video footage of Ametov standing in front of the Council of Ministers building – which was being guarded at the time by Russian forces after its seizure days earlier -- was captured by the Crimean Tatar television channel ATR shortly before his abduction.

As an investigation by Britain's Channel 4 noted a year after Ametov's death, the ATR footage also shows a man with a video camera -- presumed to be a journalist -- who appears to have filmed Ametov's abduction at close range.

Attempts by RFE/RL to identify the cameraman, whose footage of Ametov could reveal further clues about the people involved in his kidnapping, were unsuccessful. It was not immediately clear if investigators in Crimea or Ukrainian authorities conducting a separate investigation from Kyiv have identified the man or accessed his footage.

Yevhen Komarovskiy, head of the Crimea directorate at the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General's Office, told RFE/RL that the Kyiv-led investigation into Ametov's death is ongoing but that the lack of access to Russia-controlled Crimea "complicates investigative actions."

According to Khaibullayeva, Russian prosecutors in Crimea have rotated through several different detectives in the official investigation and have not provided case materials to the family of Ametov, whom Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko awarded posthumously with the nation's highest title -- Hero of Ukraine.

"Crimea prosecutors in Kyiv don't have much in terms of case materials. The Russian investigation has more, of course. But they haven't presented that information," Khaibullayeva said.

  • 16x9 Image

    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

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    Olena Removska

    Olena Removska is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.

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