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Crimean Tatars Cry Foul Following Latest Arrest

Crimean Tatars greet and escort Mustafa Dzhemilev (center) before attempting to pass a checkpoint connecting Ukraine's Kherson region and Crimea near the city of Armyansk on May 3.
Crimean Tatars greet and escort Mustafa Dzhemilev (center) before attempting to pass a checkpoint connecting Ukraine's Kherson region and Crimea near the city of Armyansk on May 3.

The detention of another Crimean Tatar this week has sent jitters across the embattled minority group, which has been the target of a sweeping crackdown since Crimea's annexation by Russia in March.

Edem Ebulisov was arrested on November 25 after allegedly assaulting a police officer during clashes near Crimea's northern city of Armyansk in May.

He is the fourth Crimean Tatar to be detained in connection with what has become known as the "May 3 case."

Crimean Tatar leaders denounced the arrests as yet another attempt to deter their community from criticizing the peninsula's annexation.

"Authorities are trying to dissuade people from taking part in similar public rallies," says Nariman Dzhelyal, the deputy head of the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatars' self-governing body. "Authorities are also trying to tell people, 'This is what will happen to you if you follow the Mejlis, it can't protect you, don't attend their protest actions.'"

Ebulisov was among the thousands of Crimean Tatars who traveled to the de facto border with mainland Ukraine on May 3 to support their veteran leader, Mustafa Dzhemilev.

The clashes erupted after Dzhemilev, who had been declared persona non grata by the new Moscow-backed authorities, was prevented from entering Crimea.

Most Crimean Tatars, the native inhabitants of Crimea, have vocally opposed Russia's takeover of the Ukrainian peninsula.

The predominantly Muslim Crimean Tatars administered their own state, the Crimean Khanate, for more than 300 years until the end of the 18th century.

In 1944, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin ordered the deportation of their entire people to Central Asia. Many of the 200,000 deportees died on their way into exile.

Crimean Tatars were only able to return to their homeland in the late 1980s, where they currently make up around 13 percent of the population.

Due to their tragic history, they have retained a strong sense of their own identity and have become a thorn in the side of Crimea's new government.

Crimean Tatar leaders reject the charges against the four "May 3" defendants as yet another attempt to scare the minority group into submission.

The three other men -- Musa Apkerimov, Rustam Abdurakhmanov, and Tair Smeldyayev -- were arrested last month and charged with assaulting police. They are currently in pretrial detention.

"What kind of police are they talking about?" asks Dzhelyal. "About the disbanded Ukrainian Berkut riot police? They are invoking Russian laws, although many police officers still wear Ukrainian uniforms. So this is clearly a politically motivated case."

The lawyer defending Tair Smeldyayev, Emil Kurbedinov, agrees. "It's 100 percent political," he says.

Kurbedinov says investigators are basing their accusations on a video in which Smeldyayev is allegedly seen attacking a police officer. But according to the lawyer, the footage does not document any assault.

"Smeldyayev is seen holding a man in camouflage by the collar and the shoulder of his uniform, that's all he does," says Kurbedinov, adding that his client grabbed the man after being struck in the face. "Investigators say this man suffered pain and that it is enough to open charges, although he was not injured or hurt in any way."

The detentions are the latest blow against Crimean Tatars.

Their leaders Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov have both been barred from entering Crimea, allegedly because their activities "incite interethnic hatred."

Russian authorities have also impounded the building of the Mejlis after it boycotted recent local elections. Masked, armed men and police officers raided the building and confiscated protocols of some of the Mejlis's sessions, several religious books, computers, and personal belongings of Dzhemilev.

Dzhemilev is a well-known Soviet-era human rights activist who served six jail sentences in Soviet prison camps from 1966 to 1986.

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    Natalya Dzhanpoladova

    Natalya Dzhanpoladova is a journalist for RFE/RL Russian's Service focusing on human rights themes. She has co-hosted and co-edited the podcast You Have The Right since 2020, and she has been an editor on the TV program of the same name since 2017.  Dzhanpoladova joined RFE/RL in 2011, working mainly as a court and field reporter, providing coverage both for radio and TV. 

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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues.

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