Ukrainian officials have marked the 77th anniversary of the Crimean Tatars’ Stalin-era deportations from Crimea to Central Asia by denouncing what they called their ongoing persecution by Russia.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and backed separatists in two of its eastern provinces, sparking a war that has killed more than 13,000 people.
Crimean Tatars, rights activists, and Western governments say Russia has subjected Crimean Tatars and others who opposed annexation to abuse, discrimination, and politically motivated prosecution on false charges.
As Crimean Tatars marked the anniversary of the 1944 deportations, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a statement: "We will not forgive that 70 years [after the deportations] you were forced to leave your home again due to the Russian annexation."
"And those of you who remain [in Crimea] are being persecuted and imprisoned by the occupation authorities," Zelenskiy added.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that Russia “continues to systemically suppress the Crimean Tatars."
Russia denies carrying out repressions in Crimea, but regularly announces arrests of alleged Islamist or pro-Ukrainian "terrorists" on the Black Sea peninsula.
The Crimean Solidarity group said that prayers and commemorations of the victims of the 1944 deportations were held on May 18 in towns and villages across Crimea, despite warnings by Russia-imposed authorities not to hold unsanctioned public events.
Commemoration events were also held in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.
Members of the mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking indigenous ethnic group of the Black Sea peninsula were deported en masse during World War II, after Stalin accused them of collaborating with Nazi Germany.
Starting on May 18, 1944, some 250,000 people were put on trains -- most of them in the space of two days -- and sent to Central Asia. Tens of thousands died during the journey or after they were left on the barren steppe with few resources.
Crimean Tatars were not allowed to return to Crimea until the late 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev conducted reforms in the years before the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
In November 2015, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law declaring May 18 the Day of Commemoration of Victims of the Genocide of the Crimean Tatars.