The defendants in the “Hizb ut-Tahrir” case in Crimea – who are they: terrorists or the oppressed?
By Anton Naumlyuk, journalist and freelance correspondent for Radio Svoboda (all photos by Anton Naumlyuk)
Translated and edited by Voices of Ukraine
The session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly [July 1-5], which recently ended in Tbilisi, adopted a resolution “On the violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the violation of the rights of the Crimean Tatar people.” A large portion of Crimean Tatars are pursued by the authorities of the Russian-annexed peninsula for participating in the activities of the organization “Hizb ut-Tahrir.” Russia – is one of the few countries in the world where “Hizb ut-Tahrir” is recognized as a terrorist organization and banned. Who are they really, members of the “Islamic Liberation Party?” What do they seek and why are they persecuted? Special correspondent for Radio Svoboda [Radio Liberty] Anton Naumlyuk met with members of the movement and their relatives.
In Tbilisi, on the initiative of the Ukrainian delegation, the participants of the OSCE once again talked about fundamental human rights violations on the peninsula, referring to the reports of the Bureau for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the OSCE and the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities.
“The growing repression of, violence against and discrimination of indigenous Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians, including kidnapping, murder, torture and ill-treatment, enforced disappearance and harassment, arbitrary arrest, detention or imprisonment; repressive measures on the part of the de facto authorities against the Mejlis Crimean Tatar people and its leaders,” – states the text of the resolution. In addition, it specifies the facts of “manifestations of violence and discrimination based on religious bias” – the capturing of churches and attacks on priests, especially Protestant and Orthodox Christians who belong under the jurisdiction of the Kyiv Patriarchate. “As well as raids and searches of mosques and madrasas of the Crimean Tatars, restrictions on the distribution of Muslim religious literature under the false pretext of the fight against extremism,” – the document’s authors point out. About the same wording is contained in the resolution adopted by the European Parliament at the beginning of the year in Crimea. Behind the general terms of the resolution, several dozen criminal cases against Crimean Muslims are hidden, including the vast majority of the Crimean Tatars, but there are also Russians and Ukrainians who profess Islam.
The most significant case against Crimean Muslims – is the accusation of involvement in the Islamic organization ” Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami” (the ‘Islamic Liberation Party.’ – RS), banned by the Russian Supreme Court in 2003. There are 14 people on the peninsula now being prosecuted in this case, the trials of four of them are already underway in the North-Caucasian Military District Court in Rostov-on-Don, investigations into the rest are not yet completed. All of them were charged under Article 205.5 of the Russian Federation Criminal Code. Those who are charged with the creation of a cell organization face 15 to 20 years in prison, the rest of the prospective participants – up to 10 years. If detentions continue, and local lawyers do not doubt they will, then after the “Spring anti-terror amendments” enter into force, this period will increase to 20 years.
“The law is not retroactive, they will judge them according to the rules that were current at the time of their arrest and charges,” – expressed lawyer Emile Kurbedinov with confidence. He is defending multiple defendants in the “case” of “Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami,” as well as the journalist Mykola Semena who is accused of separatism, and who is now under house arrest.
Utopia “Hizb ut-Tahrir”
“The Islamic Liberation Party” appeared in 1953. It was founded by Sharia judge Takiuddin an-Nabhani, and calls for a “pure Islam.” In most countries the organization operates entirely legally; it is recognized as a terrorist organization in Russia, and is pursued in a number of the republics of Central Asia, Turkey, and Pakistan. In the United States, it is recognized as an “organization that promotes the spread of the ideas of Islamic fundamentalism and radicalism,” but is not banned; in Germany it is prosecuted for anti-Semitic views. Germany’s decision was appealed in the ECHR [European Court of Human Rights], but to no avail: although the court did not find signs of terrorist activity in the “Hizb ut-Tahrir,” it acknowledged that its objectives are contrary to the values of the European Convention on Human Rights. These objectives are to spread the Islamic way of life and the organization of a Caliphate, thus rejecting any violent methods.
“Probably, this organization is indeed utopian”
“The organization…aims to eliminate non-Islamic governments and establish Islamic rule worldwide by recreating the “World Islamic Caliphate,” initially in regions with a predominantly Muslim population, including Russia and the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] countries. The main form of activity: militant Islamic propaganda combined with intolerance of other religions, the active recruitment of supporters, and purposeful work on effecting a split in society (primarily propagandist with powerful financial support), “- says the decision of the Supreme Court dated February 14, 2003, when they simultaneously banned 14 Islamic organizations. Not a single fact of “Hizb ut-Tahrir” terrorist activities was specified in the reasoning of the decision. A year later, when the prosecution of members of the organization in Bashkiria and other regions began, the human rights movement “Memorial” cited in its report to Moscow City Court judge Vladimir Usov, who at one of the case conferences, said: “Probably, the organization is indeed utopian, but perhaps even human rights activists understand that I must be guided by the decision of the Supreme Court.” Despite a number of restrictions of its activities, the party is not recognized as terrorist in any European country, except for Russia.
A “Conveyor Belt” for Crimean Muslims
14 people living in Crimea are involved in the case about membership in “Hizb ut-Tahrir” taking place now. Until the spring of 2014, they did not feel pressure from security officials; in Ukraine the organization operates completely freely. Russian legislation has changed their status from “radical Muslims” to “terrorists.”
Detentions began in late January of 2015 when FSB operatives staged simultaneous raids at two houses – in the village of Orlyne near Sevastopol and in neighboring Shtormove. In April, security forces again came to Orlyne and detained another man. Three of them – Rustem Vaytov, Nuri [Yuri] Primov, Ferat Sayfullaev – are accused of involvement in “Hizb ut-Tahrir.” Ruslan Zeytullaev – in the organization of a cell. This “Sevastopol group,” began to be judged in the North Caucasus Military District Court of Rostov on June 1st. The remaining ten people are waiting for the completion of their investigations, which will last at least until the autumn.
Subsequent detentions took place in Yalta in February and April of 2016. The total detained on February 11 was 12 people from all over Crimea, but eight were released. The searches took place, including in the home of Crimean human rights activist and member of the Contact Group on Human Rights – Emir Huseyn Kuku, whom security officials arrested on the same charges – membership in a terrorist organization. The case of the six people of the “Yalta group:” Emir Huseyn Kuku, Inver Bekirov, Muslim Aliev, Vadim Siruk, Arsen Dzheparov and Refat Alimov, apparently, will be considered separately by the Rostov court.
Finally, most recently in the case of “Hizb ut-Tahrir,” four residents of Bakhchisaray were detained in May of 2016. The traditional charges have been brought against them, the investigation has just begun, and all four are in the Simferopol SIZO. One of the last detained, businessman Enver Mamutov, is being held in solitary confinement. He is considered to be the organizer of the group – for this, Mamutov faces 20 years in jail to life imprisonment. Zevri Abseitov, Remzi Memetov and Rustem Abiltarov sit in common cells.
“We are afraid that these detentions will continue,” – says the sister of Refat Alimov, Lenie Nazarbekova. “I’m afraid that they will come for my husband. We completely do not understand the logic – for whom they come, and for whom they don’t. Any Muslim in Crimea, it turns out, can be accused of extremism.” Lawyer Emil Kurbedinov who represents several of the defendants in the case of “Hizb ut-Tahrir,” believes that detentions of Crimean Muslims will continue. He calls this case a “conveyor belt.” Human rights activists and lawyers fear that after the ban of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people comes into force there will be another big case on charges of extremism with an unknown number of defendants.
Ukrainian political prisoners who “can escape”
In addition to the “Sevastopol group,” which is on trial in Rostov, investigations of the other defendants in the case continue. All of them have had their custody extended, despite the defense’s request to change the measure of restraint on house arrest. On July 6, the [occupied] Kyiv District Court of Simferopol considered the petition of the investigative department of the FSB in Crimea to extend the investigation until October across the entire “Bakhchysarai Quartet.”
As was recognized by the lawyers, after the first interrogation they have not conducted any investigation, but FSB investigator Sergei Makhno, who asked to leave them in jail until the fall, claimed that the accused might leave Crimea, and the investigators need to conduct a series of examinations. “They are citizens of Ukraine, recognized as political prisoners there. That is why they could, desiring this status, leave the territory of Russia.” – the investigator stated in court. Among all of the detained are two passports – a Russian one, which is found in the case file, and a Ukrainian one, which the lawyers also offered to remove so that the law enforcement authorities would be convinced that the accused would not be able to leave the peninsula legally.
“What is the cause of such a long period?” – Judge Irina Kigitina was surprised when the investigator asked to leave the accused in custody for four months. “The conducting of labor-intensive and prolonged examinations,” – said Makhno.
“There are no preconditions that my client would hide,” – said Rustem Abiltarov’s lawyer Oksana Zhelezniak. “His passport is in the case file, he cannot go anywhere, and has never tried to before. And finally, he has family here.” Abiltarov, the builder, has four children, as does Abseitov, and Mamutov has seven of them.
“How can Memetov threaten the witnesses, as the investigator fears, if he does not even know who these witnesses are,” – lawyer Sergei Legostov continued, trying to persuade the court. How can he destroy the evidence if it’s kept in law enforcement under guard?”
The judge was not convinced, and she left the whole “Bakhchysarai Four” in custody until October 21st. “I have no relationship to the party ‘Hizb ut-Tahrir,'” – Remzi Memetov stated in court. “I have never recruited, nor done any of what I am accused of. I’m not planning to hide anywhere, nor do I intend to put any pressure on anyone, especially since I do not know them.” He worked as a cook, and during the traditional iftar (evening meal during Ramadan – RS) for which Bakhchysarai Muslims are currently gathering in the mosque’s courtyard, they remember the pilaf which Memetov prepared.
“I am not and never was in any organization,” – stated Zevri Abseitov. The dentist came to court with a blood pressure monitor, complaining of health problems due to his blood pressure. “I was engaged in work I loved and reaped only the beneifts. For myself, my health is already almost gone. But my mother is left with four children and a wife.”
Appealing the court’s decision is useless; both the lawyers and the relatives of the defendants themselves understand this. A few days before the meeting in the [occupied] Kyiv District Court in the Supreme Court of Crimea [in Simferopol], an appeal on the exact same decision on Refat Alimov and Arsen Dzheparov of the “Yalta group” was considered. Video- and photo-taking during the proceedings were banned due to ‘lack of expediency.’ “I am a citizen of the Russian Federation, registered in Yalta, I live with my parents. The investigating authorities did not identify any evidence of the need to extend the investigation, no real possibility of escape.” – Alimov urged the court. “My ancestors lived on this land, my parents, and I’m not planning to flee anywhere. FSB officers tried to frighten me even before my arrest, I could have left, but I continued to live here and to work.” – Dzheparov repeated.
In my view, the only reasonable explanation for all of these extensions, is that the investigation has no evidence of any guilt, and they are putting on pressure to get a confession,”- suggested lawyer Emile Kurbedinov.
“Probably, one should not have been born a Tatar.”
When the judge left to make his decision, which was obvious to everyone, Dzheparov, said via video link: “Where is Zarina?” – This is his wife. She came to the center of the room so that she could be seen on camera. “She’s crying?” – Asks the accused. “It is with joy at seeing you,” – soothes the son’s mother, crying herself. Alimov’s mother calms her: “Do not worry, they will swap places with us. Hold on, we are strong. They are not mothers. One would really like to have their children end up in the place of ours. I will pray about this every day. Probably one should not have been born a Tatar… ,”- says the woman.
A dua near every house
The vast majority of Crimean Muslims consider the prosecution and the “Hizb ut-Tahrir” case itself to be pressure on religious grounds. Given the complexity of relations between the Russian authorities and the Crimean Tatars, there is an added national factor. “Why do they so not like our people?” – Dzheparov’s mother asks at the trial, to no one in particular. “Again repressions. They lower their eyes, say nothing. All their lives they’ve lived with Tatars, and now Tatars are bad. They’ve so intimidated us that only our mouths are left to seal with tape.”
“They have so intimidated us that only our mouths are left to seal with tape.”
The response to the prosecutions was the actual unification of Muslims, among whom there are clearly also non-supporters of “Hizb ut-Tahrir.” One of the original forms of protest became the “dua” – mass prayer for the fate of political prisoners, which Muslims hold near the homes of each of the detainees. In Bakhchysarai, at such prayer meetings, up to 150 people attend. At the duas are always a lot of police and plainclothes officers, they often sit in cars and record what is happening on camera. Sometimes, prior to the families’ organizing of a dua, security officials bring a warning about the inadmissibility of violation of the law on mass events. In response, Muslims are surprised that the prayers are actually equated to rallies.
“We ask Allah to either ease our time spent in custody, or make it so that the authorities pay attention to the real criminals, terrorists and extremists who pose a threat to society or the state, and fight with them,” – said Alexander, a Russian who converted to Islam. He became blind after a car accident, but comes to almost every session of the court, and to all the duas. After another prayer when iftar began, he went to tell the camera what he thinks about the trials of his fellow believers.
“It’s sad to look at the situation of Muslims in Crimea, but their cohesion pleases, as it begins to increase more and more,” – says the lawyer Emile Kurbedinov. Relatives of the detained Muslims created an informal organization “Crimean solidarity,” which helps the families left without men to gather the children to school, organizes the duas, and writes appeals to the authorities. Every last Sunday of the month members of “Solidarity” gather to find out what needs the families of the “unjustly imprisoned” have. Remzi Memetov’s son Dilyaver coordinates the organization. “They are our children, those who are left. How can we not help them?” – says Ruslan, a businessman from Simferopol. “Look, my son allocated five thousand [to them], I allocated something, others too – that’s how we support them.”“For our children, childhood ended on February 11, within a few minutes. Right behind a man was Ilyas,” – Muslim Aliyev’s wife says, and demonstrates on her teenage son. “And we are trying to seek the truth, we do not know where to look, but we are trying. I think that these people are well aware that there was no terrorism here and that there cannot be. This means that somebody needs children to suffer, wives to suffer, and all the people to feel the pressure.”
In the house of the arrested human rights activist Emir-Huseyn Kuku two young children are left. “Probably, the Almighty gives according to your strengths, only you do not know ahead of time what you are capable of. When the searches began on February 11 all around Crimea, there were detainments, and then they began to let people go. And all of them returned to their homes, except for our four. But then I was told, and I remembered it: ‘they are alive, and you know where to find them.’ That’s all, for now, inshallah. Compared with those who are lost, the situation cannot be compared. Maybe that’s why we continue to hope,” – says Kuku’s wife Meryem.
Her son Bakir, who watched as masked men with guns broke down the door early in the morning, knocked his father to the floor, handcuffed him and then searched the house, recalls the February events in great detail. In his nine years, he is very serious and always calls the Russian security forces: “ignoramuses, the fathers of stupidity.” “What has befallen you, you cannot escape, and that which has passed – will never come back to you” – the boy sometimes repeats.
Source: Radio Svoboda
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