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A family business: how Russian security forces target the Crimean Tatar community

In occupied Crimea, Russia's security services regular go after whole Crimean Tatar families.

Alona Savchuk
2 October 2019
Salsabil Abdullayeva, the eldest daughter of Uzeir Abdullayev, charged with terrorism offences, shows a picture of her father during trial
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Photo: Alina Smutko

Fatma is a small, delicate woman of 30. On top of her traditional dress and hijab, a pair of trainers and a rucksack give her the look of a carefree young woman. But Fatma Ismailova is the mother of three children: Khadija, the oldest, is 9, Fatikh is 7 and Khalid is 5. And for the past three years, she’s been bringing her children on her own.

In October 2016, officers with Russia’s security service, the FSB, arrested Fatma’s husband Rustem Ismailov on terrorism charges after searching the family home in Crimea. In June this year, a Russian military court sentenced Rustem to 14 years of strict regime prison for “participating in the activities of a terrorist organisation”.

Fatma is one of many Crimean Tatar women who have lost husbands, brothers, sons and other relatives to the wave of counter-terrorism cases which have swept the peninsula since it was annexed by Russia in 2014. There are now more than 170 children living without their fathers, who are detained or convicted on terrorism charges. In some densely inhabited Crimean Tatar villages, there are entire streets without male relatives. This tidal wave of police harassment affects the whole of the Crimean Tatar community, and its effects will make themselves felt for a long time to come.

The investigations concern alleged membership of the Islamic fundamentalist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is banned as a terrorist organisation in Russia. But this label is clearly rejected by Crimean Tatars and human rights organisations, who state that the terrorism charges are politically motivated.

“We want the public to know that our husbands have been defamed with this label of terrorist,” Fatma said in June after her husband Rustem was convicted alongside four other men, including two brothers. “Our husbands are good, god-fearing Muslims, fathers of many children. What is happening now in Crimea is lawlessness. It’s a second deportation of the Crimean Tatar people - only this time they’re going to prison, not exile.”

Nowadays the phrase “family business” in Crimea has little to do with commercial activity. Over the last few years, Russia’s FSB and counter-extremism unit has opened over 20 criminal and administrative cases against Crimean Tatar families.

A family affair

Fatma selects and weighs her words carefully, she always says exactly what she wants to. After Rustem’s arrest, she threw herself into activism, spreading information about the Russian security forces’ campaign of house searches and investigations against Crimean Tatars.

When Fatma attends court sessions, she is usually accompanied by her father Enver Omerov - a short, quiet man of around 60. In early June this year they made an overnight trip together to Rostov-on-Don from Crimea - Ismailov’s trial was nearing its end, and closing arguments were due to be held on 10 July. At roughly two am, Russian traffic police stopped their car at the entrance to the Kerch bridge and kept them for three hours. Enver’s blood pressure spiked as a result.

Indeed, 10 June turned out to be a fateful day for several Crimean Tatar families.

Fatma Ismailova (centre) at a Crimean Solidarity meeting, alongside Alime Abdullaeyva and Guzal Saledinova, wives of two men convicted in the first Simferopol Hizb ut-Tahrir case | Photo: Alina Smutko

“My father felt ill, he went pale and it looked as if he was having a heart attack. He couldn’t get his words out. I called the ambulance,” Fatma tells me. “The FSB officer started accusing my father of faking it. They took his blood pressure, gave him a couple of injections and said that he needed to lie down and not worry anymore. The FSB officers said that he was going to take my father away anyway. I asked whether he was detaining him. They said: ‘we’re inviting him.’ After I clarified on what basis, the FSB officer started getting nervous and said that if I was going to ‘make trouble’ and ‘attack’ him, then he’d handcuff me to the generator [at the traffic police stop]. Then he gave my father five minutes to rest and then took him away in a car.”

An FSB officer told Fatma that they were taking her father to Kerch police station, but she didn’t find him there. Later it turned out that Enver Omerov had been taken to FSB headquarters in Simferopol.

Meanwhile, Russian security forces began a series of searches of Crimean Tatar homes in Alushta, Belogorsk and Simferopol, and as a result the FSB arrested seven more men, including Riza Omerov, Enver’s son and Fatma’s brother. During a search of Riza’s house, in the village of Zuya in the Belogorsk district, his wife Sevilya went into premature labour: she was in the seventh month of her pregnancy. She was rushed by ambulance to Simferopol’s Perinatal Centre, where her condition was stabilised.

That evening, a district court in Simferopol, the administrative capital of Crimea, sent all eight arrestees, who are suspected of “participating in the activities of a terrorist organisation”, to a pre-trial detention centre. Five of them, including Fatma’s brother Riza Omerov, facing sentences of up to 20 years. The other three, including Fatma’s father Enver Omerov, have been charged as “organisers” and risk life imprisonment.

A month later, Riza’s wife Sevilya gave birth to a son, Isa. The three women - Sevilya, Fatma and Fatma’s mother Lemara - are bringing up eight children on their own. There are no men left in the Omerov family.

‘There’s still time. We’ll shoot the lot of you’

That same morning on 10 June, Russian security forces arrested Eskander Suleymanov, the brother of Ruslan Suleymanov, an activist in the Crimean Solidarity movement who was himself arrested during a wave of mass arrests in March this year. Ruslan is charged with “organising a terrorist cell” in the second of two terrorism cases in Simferopol. Eskander has been deemed a “participant”. His house was searched by FSB investigator Sergey Makhnev, head of the team investigating the case.

“I didn’t even have time to get dressed before they threw my son to the floor and twisted his arms behind his back,” says Zera Suleymanova, mother of Ruslan and Eskender. “He started to say: ‘Don’t scare my parents. Let me get up and then you can put the handcuffs on.’

“They turned everything upside down, throwing clothes and books on the floor. My husband was livid: ‘What are you looking for? You’ve only just done a search. Why are you here? You should be laying water and gas pipes, but instead you’re conducting searches!’

“In reply, one of the FSB officers grabbed a gun and pointed it at my husband: ‘I’ll shoot you.’ I moved in front of him and said: ‘Shoot me. They’ve already taken one son and now they’re here for the other one’. He pushed us aside, saying: ‘There’s still time. We’ll shoot the lot of you.’ Then they said that my husband was talking too much, tied his hands and took him outside.”

Zera and Server Suleimanov, parents of brothers Ruslan and Eskender Suleimanov - two men convicted in the second Simferopol Hizb ut-Tahrir case | Photo: Taras Ibragimov

Eskender is a programming specialist and his brother Ruslan is a physics teacher and father of four children. Ruslan was twice arrested on an administrative charge for taking part in an unauthorised mass protest: in February 2017 he was detained by the police for five days - for standing outside the home of activist Marlen Mustafayev during a search - and in October the same year he held a single picket in support of the defendants in another terrorism case, in nearby Bakhchisaray. He was fined 10,000 roubles as a result.

A week after Ruslan’s arrest, his mother Zera picketed against the prosecution of Crimean Tatars on terrorism charges. She stood with a placard reading “My son is not a terrorist” in the same place where, a year and a half before, Ruslan had protested in support of people arrested in Bakhchisaray for holding a placard reading: “In 1944 they exiled us, now they imprison us.”

"My Son is not a Terrorist": Zera Suleimanova holds a single picket in support of her son Ruslan Suleimanov | Source: Facebook

For another family, that of Fatima Yanikova, 27 March 2019 - when Russian security services searched 27 Crimean Tatar homes - was a black day.

That day, the FSB arrested Fatima’s husband Farhod Bazarov and her brother Asan Yanikov, along with her husband’s brother Alim Kerimov. The security services accused Farhod of organising a terrorist cell, and Asan and Alim of being involved in its activities. Along with other defendants in the largest Hizb ut-Tahrir case in Crimea so far, they were secretly moved from the peninsula to the Rostov region in Russia and split up among four pre-trial detention centres in Rostov-on-Don, Taganrog and Shakhta.

This is where the trial of Sevastopol resident Enver Seytosmanov began in August, at the North Caucasus district military court in Rostov. The FSB had arrested Seytosmanov in May 2018, along with his brother Ernes, after a search at their home in the village of Tylovoye in Sevastopol. In the end, Ernes was released, but Enver was accused of involvement in a terrorist organisation - the first Hizb ut-Tahrir case in Crimea, in which four men were convicted in 2016.

The prosecution team now insists that this “Sevastopol Cell” included a second “organiser”. The charge against Enver Seytosmanov has been changed and he now risks a life sentence.

“Petty dirty tricks borne out of personal spite”

It was another terrorism case that set off the chain of “family” investigations into Crimean Tatar communities. In October 2016, five residents of a Simferopol suburb were accused of belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir. Among them were the brothers Uzeir (“participant”) and Teymur Abdullayev (“organiser”) from the village of Stroganovka.

They were nicknamed “Crimea’s Klichko brothers”, after the famous Ukrainian boxers of that name. Uzeir and Teimur had spent their entire lives together and were both crazy about martial arts. As well as winning European Taekwondo Championships in different weight categories in the 1990s, both had also graduated from military academy and completed law degrees. After moving to Crimea they also won Ukrainian championships. In the few years before their arrests they trained youngsters in their own gym in Stroganovka. They lived close to each other, and both had children: Uzeir had four; Teimur - five. In June this year, after two and a half years in pre-trial detention, a military court sentenced Uzeir and Teimur to 13 and 17 years respectively.

As well as the criminal case against the Abdullayev brothers, Russian security services also charged Uzeir’s wife Fera with an administrative offence. In December 2017, Fera got into an argument with an officer of the Crimean Supreme Court, who then demanded that she be charged with “non-compliance” with instructions over behaviour in court.

In Crimea’s Supreme Court, hearings on the extension of pre-trial detention involving defendants in Hizb-ut-Tahrir cases - as well as other trials relating to terrorist, extremist and sabotage offences - take place exclusively in camera. During the entire preliminary investigation - which lasts one or more years - detainees have no chance to see their families. Sometimes wives and mothers can manage to get into the courthouse and get a glimpse of their men as they are being led along a corridor from the police van to the courtroom. In rare cases, judges allow families to be present at the verdict, but they don’t always have time to register and get to the courtroom during breaks between sessions.

Mansur, Mukhammad and Ali are sons of three men convicted for alleged membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir | Source: Taras Ibragimov

According to Fera, on the day in question, a court officer allowed her to stand on the staircase between the ground and first floors, so that she could see her husband as he was led down the corridor. Two Russian human rights activists who happened to be within hearing distance confirmed this. After Fera climbed the staircase, another officer approached her and asked her to return to the floor below. And when she tried to object and explain that one of his colleagues had allowed her to stand on the stairs, she was detained and sanctioned for an administrative offence.

Gulsum Aliyeva, the daughter of a defendant in the Yalta Hizb ut-Tahrir case, has had a much more negative experience: she was charged with “inciting international hatred” for a social network repost. After a house search, an interrogation at the Investigative Committee and summonses to the Prosecutor’s Office, her criminal charge was, however, dropped. At the close of 2018, the Russian parliament partially decriminalised certain extremism offences, and the statue of limitations ran out on another offence. Yet the FSB “forgot” to remove Gulsum’s name from the official extremism and terrorism register, and she is still on a “terrorist and extremist” list to this day. Her lawyer Aleksey Ladin has dubbed the FSB’s actions “petty dirty tricks borne out of pure spite”.

“The Crimean courts are inhuman”

The record for the number of administrative and criminal cases on the peninsula belongs to the Kulametov family, who live in the town of Staryi Krym (“Old Crimea”): 20 days of administrative arrest, 22,000 roubles in fines and 250 hours of community service for four people in six different cases.

On a January morning in 2018, officers with the Centre for Combating Extremism (often known by its nickname, “Centre E”) conducted a search at the Kulametov family home. The motive was an administrative case against Zarema and Zekkiy Kulametov’s only son, Giray. After the search, the cops drove Giray away to an undisclosed location; his family couldn’t establish his whereabouts and state of health for several hours. Zarema, meanwhile, got into an argument with a police officer outside the local police station.

Towards evening on that day, Giray was convicted on an administrative charge of propagandising extremism online. He had posted video from 2012 and photos from an uncertain date of two black and white crossed flags, which an expert witness for the prosecution suggested had an association with emblems banned in Russia. Giray was sent off to a temporary detention centre for 10 days.

The young man served his sentence, but the police also had questions for his mother. The argument with the police officer was seen as a “threat to life”. A criminal charge of “insulting a representative of authority” was brought against her. The case lasted two months, she was pronounced guilty and sentenced to 250 hours of community work and compensation for her victim of 20,000 roubles for his emotional distress.

At home in Stroganovka, Simferopol: Fera Abdullayeva, wife of Uzeir Abdullayev, convicted on terrorism charges | Photo: Alina Smutko

Zarema, the mother of four and grandmother of ten children, carried out her community service, sweeping the paths of Stary Krym’s town park. In September last year, in broad daylight, two cars without number plates drew up alongside, and men in uniform - but without insignia - bundled her into one of the cars and drove her away. One of them swore in passing at a Crimean Solidarity activist who filmed the abduction. Zarema was then brought to a house that the Kulametovs rent out, to carry out a search there. The local street was surrounded by riot police. Zarema’s husband Zekkiy and daughter Riana argued with the cops, after which the squad rushed the Kulametovs, handcuffed them and drove them away. As a result of the incident, Zekkiy was charged with the administrative offence of “non-compliance with a legitimate police order”.

It turned out that a joint Centre E and Russian National Guard special operation was taking place as part of administrative cases against Zekkiy, Zarema and Riana Kulametov. All three were charged with posting material on social networks that Centre E investigators considered “a public demonstration of emblems of an extremist organisation”. By the evening they had all been convicted: Zarema and Riana were fined 1,000 roubles each, while Zekkiy was detained for a total of 10 days for his two offences.

A celebration: Zarema Kulametova (centre) with her daughter Riana (right), son Giray and his wife and children, mark the end of Giray's 10-day administrative arrest | Source: Crimean Solidarity

This practice of prosecuting entire families is unusual for Russia, including in cases involving terrorism and extremism charges (these usually involve practicing Muslims). Prominent examples of the latter include the 2017 St Petersburg Metro bombing, which two pairs of brothers are charged with, and a 2015 attempted terrorist act in Moscow’s Kyrgyzia cinema, for which 15 people were convicted, amongst them two sets of brothers.

However, in terms of the overall number of people tried and convicted, cases of family harassment and prosecution are an exception. According to the Memorial Human Rights Center, for example, 276 people are currently behind bars for their alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir. The organisation says this list is not exhaustive.

Russian human rights activist Aleksandra Krylenkova, who has been working in Crimea since 2014, believes the emergence of “family cases” is connected to the fact that the Crimean Tatar community is close knit.

“I don’t think this is a particular practice among law enforcement agencies in the region. It’s just that there are closer community ties in Crimea: two brothers may be Crimean Solidarity activists or equally religious. This is why there is more harassment of families by the police.”

Zekky Kulametov thanks the crowd of people who come to meet him after being released from administrative arrest | Image: Taras Ibragimov
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