This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 12 July 2019.
Russian authorities have brought unfounded terrorism charges against 24 Crimean Tatars, 20 of whom were arrested during heavily armed raids on their homes in the spring of this year, Human Rights Watch said today. Security officers tortured four of the men, denied lawyers access to search sites, planted evidence, and later briefly detained two activists who spoke out on behalf of the arrested men.
Crimean Tatars are a Muslim ethnic minority indigenous to the Crimean Peninsula. Many openly oppose Russia’s occupation, which began in 2014.The crackdown in the spring of 2019 is the latest in a pattern of repression to smear peaceful activists as terrorists and to stifle dissent in occupied Crimea. Russian authorities should release the activists and stop misusing the country’s overly broad counterterrorism legislation to stifle freedom of opinion, expression, and religion.
“Russian authorities seek to portray Crimean Tatars who oppose Russia’s occupation as ‘terrorists’ and ‘extremists,’” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Russian authorities in Crimea are using terrorism charges as a convenient tool of repression.”
Human Rights Watch visited Crimea from May 17 to 20 and interviewed 16 relatives of 9 of those arrested, 5 lawyers representing some of them, and a leading activist with Crimean Solidarity, which provides aid to families of individuals arrested on politically motivated charges. Human Rights Watch also examined some legal documents and seven search sites, including the places where banned books or brochures had been allegedly planted. One lawyer, who is based in Moscow, was interviewed by phone.
Most of the 24 men arrested were active in Crimean Solidarity, a loose association of human rights lawyers, relatives, and supporters of victims of political repression. All have been charged with association with Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), the controversial pan-Islamist movement that is banned in Russia as a “terrorist” organization but is legal in Ukraine. Hizb ut-Tahrir seeks the establishment of a caliphate but does not espouse violence to achieve its goals.
The raids took place on March 27, 2019, with early morning large-scale search-and-seizure operations in the activists’ homes in Crimea’s capital, Simferopol, and its suburbs. Heavily armed security personnel and police cordoned off homes and stormed inside, in some cases breaking doors and windows. They seized computer equipment, cell phones, tablets, flash drives, and Islamic literature. The searches violated procedural safeguards provided for in Russian and Ukrainian law, such as not allowing the residents to have a legal counsel present and not having independent witnesses to observe the search. In some cases, security officers appeared to plant books and brochures banned in Russia as “extremist publications.”
Twenty men were arrested at home, immediately following the searches. Three were arrested later that evening in Rostov-on-Don, where they had traveled the day before to deliver food parcels to jailed activists and attend court hearings. Officers with Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) abducted, beat, and threatened to kill them, then transported them to Crimea.
Lawyers for these 23 men were granted access to their clients when the clients were in custody at the FSB headquarters in Simferopol. Court hearings on pretrial custody took place in Simferopol on March 27 and 28. Lawyers and family members said the hearings, which resulted in pretrial detention, were rushed, perfunctory, and either closed or severely restricted public access.
One man, Edem Yayachikov, remains at large, wanted by Russian authorities on allegations of Hizb ut-Tahrir involvement. On April 17, FSB agents rounded up Raim Aivazov, a Crimean Tatar activist and friend of Yayachikov. They drove him to a deserted area, carried out a mock execution, beat him, and threatened to kill him unless he “cooperated.” They took him to the FSB office in Simferopol and forced him to sign a “confession” incriminating himself, Yayachikov, and those arrested on March 27 as Hizb ut-Tahrir members.
During his second pretrial custody hearing, Aivazov told the judge about his ordeal and retracted his confession. His lawyer filed a kidnapping and torture complaint, and the authorities have opened an inquiry.
None of the men are accused of planning, carrying out, or being an accessory to any act of violence. Nineteen, including Aivazov, are charged with involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, and five with organizing the activities of an alleged local Hizb-ut-Tahrir cell. Under Russian law, neither offense requires evidence that the accused has committed any specific offending behavior, such as planning or abetting attacks.
Edem Semedlyaev, a lawyer for one of the men who coordinates the work of lawyers representing the others, said that the defendants chose to neither acknowledge nor deny links with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Instead they invoked Article 51 of Russia’s Constitution, which sets out the rights against self-incrimination. If convicted, the men face prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life under Article 205.5 of Russia’s criminal code (organizing and participating in activities of a terrorist organization).
These 24 arrests were followed by the arrests of another eight men in Crimea on similar charges on June 10, bringing the total number of Crimean Tatars being prosecuted for association with Hizb ut-Tahrir since 2015 to 63. Among them were five Crimean Tatar activists who on June 18 received prison sentences ranging from 12 to 17 years. The FSB said that it has identified and eliminated Hizb ut-Tahrir cells in Yalta, Bakhchisarai, Simferopol, and Sevastopol.
With the 24 most recent cases not yet moved to trial, defense lawyers have yet to have access to all the alleged evidence against their clients. Based on the documents and information they have received during the investigation and pretrial custody hearings, they believe that, as in previous Hizb ut-Tahrir cases in Crimea, the prosecution will largely rely on recordings of discussions on religion and politics obtained through wire-tapping and testimony from “secret witnesses,” or under-cover agents.
Semedlyaev said that he and his colleagues saw the case as politically motivated “because practically all the people who were arrested… had an active civic position. They helped victims of abuses, they were not afraid of speaking up… of shedding light [on abuses] … Also, [the authorities] show all others – if you follow their footsteps, you will share their fate.”
Russia’s international partners should urge Russian authorities to drop the charges against Crimean Tatar activists and ensure prompt, effective, and impartial investigations into all allegations of abuse by law enforcement and security officers against them.
“There are neither accusations nor evidence that these Crimean Tatar men were involved in or planning any act of violence,” Williamson said. “Russian authorities should stop the crackdown on Crimean Solidarity and unjustified interference with freedom of association, religion, and expression in Crimea.”
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Source: MEDIA FEED