oDR: Opinion

Crimean Tatars face ongoing persecution under Russian occupation

Today, simply existing as a Crimean Tatar can result in imprisonment for years on end

Elmaz Asan
12 May 2023, 1.37pm

A young woman (not the author) attends a procession marking the Day of the Flag of the Crimean Tatar People in Kyiv in 2018


Danil Shamkin/Future Publishing via Getty Images

Since Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, I have witnessed firsthand the ongoing ethnic cleansing against my people. Crimean Tatars’ land and right to exist freely have been taken away. Our rights have been grossly violated for nearly a decade, with acts of genocide systematically committed against us.

The Russian media constantly focuses on the rights of Russians and Russian speakers in Ukrainian territory, ignoring the fact that the state language in Ukraine is Ukrainian and that the indigenous people of Ukraine are the Crimean Tatars, who have the right to study and develop their own language and culture.

Prior to the Russian invasion of Crimea in 1783, when imperial policy was aimed at expelling the indigenous Crimean Tatar people from their native land, Tatars accounted for between 80-90% of the population. Soviet authorities continued this ideology in the mid-20th century, deporting the entire Crimean Tatar people in 1944.

Crimean Tatars began to return in the 1980s and 1990s, and were estimated to make up about 13-15% of Crimea’s population before Russia’s 2014 invasion. Since then, many have been forced to flee amid a policy of intimidation and illegal arrests by the occupying authorities.

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Today, the peninsula has been largely resettled by the Russian population, who still live in houses taken from the Crimean Tatars, and repression has further intensified since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Over the past decade, social media in Crimea has been rife with derogatory and insulting comments towards the Crimean Tatars. Comments on social media are largely centred around the elimination of the Crimean Tatars from Crimea, with no punitive action or legal consequences for the perpetrators of hate speech. There have been no fines, court summonses or preventive measures taken, let alone arrests, despite the perpetuation of such hateful rhetoric.

The situation has worsened since 2014. The year after the invasion, Russian authorities shut down the only Crimean Tatar TV channel, ATR, which was a crucial voice for our people in reviving our language and culture, as well as a source of coverage on the unlawful invasion of our land.

The ATR team later began broadcasting via satellite from mainland Ukraine, but the channel’s initial closure and exile from its home in Crimea has been just one of many illegal actions taken against the Crimean Tatars.

Russian authorities have punished Crimean Tatars for advocating for their rights with prison sentences of 20 years

In 2023, simply existing as a Crimean Tatar on one’s own land and fighting to preserve one’s cultural identity can result in imprisonment for years on end. Russian authorities have been known to punish Crimean Tatars for expressing their beliefs and advocating for their rights with sentences of 15 or sometimes more than 20 years.

Between 2017 and 2022, more than 7,000 human rights violations were documented in occupied Crimea by the Crimean Tatar Resource Center, 5,613 of which were against members of the Crimean Tatar people.

Since 2014, routine searches specifically targeting the homes of Crimean Tatars have become distressingly common in Crimea, coupled with subsequent arrests based on false accusation.

For instance, on 15 March, the home of Crimean Tatar activist Rolan Osmanov was searched and he was interrogated after he wrote “Not a single tsar is worth dying for or killing for” on social media.

Osmanov later recounted the ordeal his family had endured on Facebook. He wrote that at 6.30am, Russian law enforcement forcefully entered his house, brought him to the ground and handcuffed him. His mother fainted but the occupiers continued their search of the property to intimidate him and his family, causing further distress to his young children. Osmanov is currently facing an administrative charge of online petty hooliganism.

Rolan Osmanov

Crimean Tatar activist Rolan Osmanov has been detained since March


Alexandra Efimenko

Many Crimean Tatars are also being apprehended and detained by Russian authorities as they go about their day-to-day lives.

Leniye Umerova, for example, has been unjustly imprisoned since 4 December, according to the Crimean Human Rights Group.

Having lived and worked in Kyiv since 2015, Umerova was returning to her hometown in Crimea to care for her seriously ill father. Her journey was fraught with hardships, as she had to cross Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Georgia to avoid war-torn regions.


Picture of Leniye Umerova appearing on her Facebook page

But on the border between Georgia and Russia, Umerova was apprehended by Russian security forces who subjected her to harsh treatment, including placing a bag over her head, before taking her to the city of Pyatigorsk in southern Russia.

For the next five months, she was detained near Vladikavkaz, another southern Russian city, on fabricated charges of disobedience to law enforcement agencies. Speaking to openDemocracy, her brother said Umerova’s sole ‘offence’ was not having a Russian passport, despite being born in Crimea.

Umerova’s already distressing situation worsened on 4 May, when she was forcefully taken and transferred to the Lefortovo pre-trial detention centre in Moscow, the Crimean Human Rights Group reported. Her brother told openDemocracy that she now faces 20 years in prison on charges of espionage. He also said the case had been classified and that her sister’s lawyer had signed a non-disclosure agreement. Because of this, Umerova’s relatives have been unable to establish any communication with her or to obtain updates on her situation.

Sentences for Crimean Tatars found guilty of ‘crimes’ have also become increasingly draconian. Last month, 21-year-old Appaz Kurtamet was handed seven years in prison for allegedly sending 500 hryvnias, around £11, to an illegal armed group.


Picture of Appaz Kurtamet appearing on his Facebook page

Kurtamet was detained at the administrative border between occupied Crimea and Ukraine on 23 July last year, while en route to visit his relatives in Crimea. He stopped using his phone on the same day, and his family tried to locate him by contacting the investigating authorities of the occupied peninsula but received no response until 8 October.

Dmytro Lubinets, the Ukrainian parliament commissioner for human rights, wrote on Telegram that the Russian authorities had accused Kurtamet of having “financed” a representative of a Ukrainian volunteer battalion known as “Crimea”. Kurtamet says he simply loaned this money to an acquaintance, who had joined the battalion at that time.

For nearly a decade, repressions against Crimean Tatars have persisted, marked by accusations solely based on their ethnicity and their unwavering fight for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The relentless onslaught against the Crimean Tatar people is nothing short of a genocide.

It is imperative that the genocidal actions targeting the Crimean Tatar people are brought to a halt. People like Osmanov, Umerova, Kurtamet and many others who have been unjustly detained need to be released immediately. The international human rights community, if it wishes to maintain its credibility, must take action to stop the arbitrary arrests and detentions of those who have been wrongfully convicted.

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