How Russia’s security services target Crimean Tatars as “Islamic terrorists”

In the four years since the peninsula’s annexation, Russian security services have become well practiced at prosecuting Crimean Tatars on terrorism charges. RU

Alona Savchuk
19 June 2018
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Evelina, daughter of Arsen and Zarina Dzhepparov, looks at photographs of her parents. Image: Alina Smutko. All rights reserved. “I will prove by all possible and impossible means that he’s guilty – even if he isn’t guilty.” These were the first words Arsen Dzhepparov’s family heard from the mouth of a Federal Security Service investigator in after his subordinates broke down a gate and entered the family’s yard. The investigator in question was a senior FSB lieutenant named Alexander Kompaneytsev. A former Security Service of Ukraine operative, Kompaneytsev is known for having instigated the beating and arrest of Crimean human rights defender Emir-Usein Kuku, and also for being an active recruiter of “witnesses” for Hizb ut-Tahrir cases in Crimea.

The FSB paid three visits to Arsen Dzhepparov in April 2016. The first came two weeks before his arrest, and took place at the boiler plant where he was working. Kompaneytsev told Dzhepparov in no certain terms that he must give incriminating evidence against four already-arrested individuals named in the Yalta Hizb ut-Tahrir case. When Arsen refused to comply, he was fired from his job at the FSB’s request.

The second visit occurred exactly one week later. Dzhepparov was driving to a construction site where he was making some extra money. Another car cut in ahead of him right by a traffic police station. The police immediately stopped Dzhepparov; the offending vehicle, meanwhile, braked to a halt nearby and a group of now-familiar FSB officers, two of them in uniform and armed with automatic weapons, exited. The officers ordered Dzhepparov out of the car together with its other four occupants and proceeded to search it. One of the other guys tried to object, earning himself a blow to the chest with the butt of an automatic. In the meantime, the traffic police were busy deleting CCTV footage of the incident. Asked whether he’d changed his mind about providing incriminating evidence, Dzhepparov replied that he had not. He was then charged with drunk driving, stripped of his license and fined 30,000 roubles (£350).

“Mate, you need to agree. I don’t know what they want from you, but agree or they’ll just crush you” – these were the last words Arsen Dzhepparov heard from the traffic police officer who wrote the incident report.

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A Russian security officer during a search of a Crimean Tatar home. Image: Alina Smutko. All rights reserved.Another week later, at 6am on Monday 18 April 2016, FSB operatives raided Dzhepparov’s home, detained and ultimately arrested him. Dzhepparov’s wife Zarina recalls her husband’s withdrawn, taciturn behaviour in the days leading up to his arrest, and remembers seeing him trawl the internet for information on the unspoken rules of prison conduct.

“It was too late to leave – he wouldn’t have been allowed to exit Crimea,” Zarina tells me. “But there was no question of his agreeing to their conditions. After all, how can you slander people you’ve never even seen in the flesh? ‘They’ve got their own kids, their own families,’ he told me. ‘How could I explain to my child afterwards what the meaning of conscience and honour is?’”

On the weekend before his arrest, Arsen drove Zarina down to the Yalta seafront. “He already knew they’d take him away. So we went for one last stroll by the sea,” the young woman recalls.

The faces of Crimean “terrorism”

Arsen Dzhepparov is one of 28 individuals to be named in the peninsula’s Hizb ut-Tahrir case. According to the Russian investigation, all of them are members of cells within a “radical Islamist terrorist organisation”. Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organisation which describes its objectives as “reviving the Islamic way of life in countries where it has been abandoned, and disseminating Islamic ideology around the world”, is banned in Russia, but operates in Ukraine.

In the eyes of Ukrainian and Russian human rights activists, then, these men are political prisoners who are being persecuted for their religious beliefs. Five Crimean Muslims have been convicted of or charged with establishing terrorist organisations, and the remaining 23 with involvement in terrorist activities (Article 205.5 of the Russian Federation’s Criminal Code). The “instigators” face sentences up to and including life imprisonment, with the “participants” facing up to 20 in prison colonies.

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Supporters of imprisoned Crimean Tatars gather outside Crimea’s Supreme Court. Among them are wives and daughters of defendants charged with terrorism. Image: Alina Smutko. All rights reserved.Four Crimean Tatars have already been sentenced to prison terms by a Russian court. In 2017, Sevastopol residents Rustem Vaitov and Nuri Primov were both sentenced to five years in a standard regime penal colony, Ferat Sayfullaev to seven years in the same, and Ruslan Zeytullayev – charged with establishing a terrorist group – to 15 years in a strict regime colony. However, the first-instance court didn’t find the evidence for his guilt convincing and handed Zeytullayev a seven-year sentence, reclassifying him as a “participant” rather than an “instigator”. His lawyer, Emil Kurbedinov, said that, “given Russian realities,” the court’s ruling must be deemed a “victory”.

But the state prosecutor challenged the verdict in the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, which promptly remanded the case for a retrial. Having re-examined the same evidence, the North Caucasian District Military Court in Rostov-on-Don sentenced Ruslan Zeytullayev to 12 years in a strict regime colony in April 2017. Towards the end of the retrial, Zeytullayev went on hunger strike, hoping, if not to influence his sentence, at least to draw greater attention to the persecution of Crimean Tatars across the peninsula: “For over two years now, I have refused to acknowledge any guilt in the commission of the crime imputed to me, and I will not acknowledge it now. And I hope that any reasonable individual can understand why. Because this indictment – one where every single fact is misrepresented – isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

But even 12 years proved insufficient. Once again, the public prosecutor challenged the ruling in the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, which issued a final sentence in July 2017: 15 years in a strict regime colony. Ruslan Zeytullaev thus became the first Crimean in the history of the peninsula to be convicted by Russia for “organising terrorism”.

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Sabrie, Mumine and Nurie - daughters of Ruslan Zeitullayev play outside their home in Orlinoye, Crimea. Image: Alina Smutko. All rights reserved. The military court in Rostov is now examining the second Crimean Hizb ut-Tahrir case. The case is being prosecuted against the so-called “Yalta group”, which includes Arsen Dzepparov. In February 2016, FSB operatives arrested four Muslims from the Yalta area: Muslim Aliyev, chair of the local community group; Emir-Usein Kuku, a human rights activist; Vadim Siruk, a market trader; and Inver Bekirov, a school watchman. Two months later, in April 2016, Dzepparov and Refat Alimov were detained as well.

Bekirov, Dzhepparov and Alimov lived next door to one another in the village of Krasnokamenka. Refat and Arsen are childhood friends, and Alimov is Bekirov’s nephew. Though urged to testify against his uncle, Alimov refused. The investigation alleges that Dzhepparov and Alimov attended unauthorised meetings in the watchman’s lodge at Bekirov’s school. Relatives and lawyers are convinced that the criminal prosecution of Arsen and Refat is payback for their unwillingness to “collaborate” with the security services – and that it also serves as an exhortation to other “witnesses”: don’t bother standing up to us.

“One tablet of analgin covers every base”

The Yalta case’s six defendants have spent the last six months in the pre-trial detention centers of Rostov-on-Don, prior to which they’d been forced to endure the inhuman conditions of Simferopol Remand Prison. According to Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), this is one of the most overpopulated incarceration facilities under Russian control, according to Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN). A document published on 6 April 2018 states that “the number of inmates (...) exceeds the maximum official capacity by 1.8 times.” It also refers to the urgently required “reconstruction of the facility’s buildings”, which were built in 1803 and 1965.

In practice, this means that prisoners take turns to sleep, since there are more people in the cells than beds. Fleas and bedbugs multiply like mad in the completely unsanitary conditions, there are cockroaches in the food, and Muslim inmates are sometimes given pork to eat, even though the prison bosses are fully aware that its consumption is forbidden by Islam. Inmates who fall ill very rarely receive medical visits and aren’t prescribed medications (“one tablet of analgin covers every base”).

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Simferopol Remand Prison. Image: Alina Smutko. All rights reserved.The prison doctors’ negligence almost killed Arsen Dzepparov. In November 2016, a fistula developed on his buttock, but instead of receiving treatment, Dzhepparov was placed in solitary confinement and left there for ten days because he’d allegedly failed to shave. In the meantime, the fistula ruptured.

“No one attended to him or did anything to help. He remained in his solitary confinement garb, all wet and dirty, with an untreated wound and cat-sized rats scurrying around him,” says Zarina, paraphrasing her husband’s words. “He was eventually taken to hospital and operated on but then thrown back in his cell before he’d even come to from the anaesthetic.”

In March 2017, Dzhepparov developed another fistula – this time, it formed behind his left ear. He began to be tortured by headaches so intense he’d lose consciousness. He suffered from high fever and hearing loss. His ear wept pus. The prison doctors failed to respond. Fearful that he would simply perish, Dzhepparov’s family and his lawyer, Dzhemil Temishev, spent weeks penning numerous petitions and complaints to the prison, the prosecutor’s office and the ombudspersons of Crimea and Russia. It was only thanks to their perseverance – and the ensuing blaze of publicity – that Dzhepparov was finally given treatment.

Two months ago, Uzeyir Abdullayev, another defendant in the Crimean Hizb ut-Tahrir case, fell victim to similar negligence. Abdullayev developed a purulent lesion on his leg, only to be ignored by prison doctors for several days. His leg became so swollen that he could no longer move about, and he was running a 40-degree-plus fever. Abdullayev’s relatives feared that he could end up losing his leg altogether.

Conditions in Simferopol Remand Prison are so intolerable that suicide attempts among prisoners have become more commonplace. In April of this year, at least four people died unnatural deaths while in solitary confinement. The prison administration insists that these deaths were suicides.

Run-of-the-mill terrorists

On 14 February, the military court in Rostov-on-Don proceeded to examine the merits of the Yalta Hizb ut-Tahrir case. Charged with orchestrating or contributing to the terrorist group’s activities, the six defendants also stand accused of attempting forcible seizure of power (punishable by up to 20 years imprisonment, as per Article 278 of the Criminal Code). None of the defendants have pleaded guilty to any of these crimes.

“The charges are absurd in their very essence: how can six people who neither possess vast financial resources, nor enjoy the support of the top brass of Russia’s Armed Forces possibly seize power in a powerful nuclear-armed state with a million-strong army?!” asked an incredulous Emir-Usein Kuku in an open statement to the Ukrainian people in May 2018. “Yet the FSB,” he continued, “continues to paint us as terrorists, falsifying ‘evidence’ for our ‘guilt’ in a fashion consistent with most dismal traditions of the NKVD – and thereby demonstrating that little has changed in Russia since Stalin’s time.”

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Dzhemil Temishev, Arsen Dzhepparov’s lawyer, sits on the right during a meeting of families of political prisoners and the Crimean Solidarity movement. Image: Alina Smutko. All rights reserved.Similarly to its Sevastopol counterpart, the Yalta Hizb ut-Tahrir case is built on the testimonies of secret witnesses and on wiretapped recordings of “run-of-the-mill” conversations engaged in by the defendants – conversations about the political situation in Russia and Ukraine, the fate of Crimea, the place of Islam in both countries, about religious norms. The court has already questioned several prosecution witnesses, with some departing from the testimonies they provided to investigators 12 to 18 months ago and presenting the defendants in a positive light in court hearings. Moreover, one of the secret witnesses declared during questioning that he wanted to testify openly, which left the prosecution in a difficult situation.

“Shamil Ilyasov stated in court said that he worked at the same school as Inver Bekirov and that Bekirov was well versed in Islam and that many villagers would turn to him for advice on religious issues. In his testimonies to investigators, however, Ilyasov maintained that Inver Bekirov was an adherent of Hizb ut-Tahrir. But he gave these testimonies at the FSB offices, having been taken there after a raid of his home. I believe he was testifying under duress,” says Refat Alimov’s lawyer Eden Semedlyaev, articulating the unified stance of the defence team.

The FSB then attempted to discredit Ilyasov’s testimony. Viktor Palagin, head of the Crimean FSB, submitted a petition to the court with a request that a note allegedly found at a defendant’s home be entered into the case file. In the alleged note, Muslim Aliyev asks Inver Bekirov to get in touch with three prosecution witnesses and tell them that “giving false testimonies against people is something that shouldn’t be done”. According to the investigation, the note confirms that the defendants attempted to pressure the witnesses.

Vadim Siruk’s lawyer Emil Kurbedinov issued a brief comment on Palagin’s petition, calling it “the FSB’s revenge” for the witness’s open testimony. Sergey Legostov, defence counsel for Muslim Aliyev, stressed that the note couldn’t have materialised “at a more timely moment as far as the prosecution was concerned,” and that the court decision’s to enter it into the case file ran counter to the law and had no reasonable basis.

“The note was submitted by a body that isn’t party to the case. There’s a prosecutor in the case, and only that prosecutor has the right to present evidence. Otherwise we’ll have some plumber from the public utilities office turning up at court tomorrow with more evidence to file,” said Kurbedinov.

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Sergey Legostov, lawyer for Muslim Aliyev, a defendant in the Yalta Hizb ut-Tahrir case, and Nadzhie Aliyeva, Muslim’s wife. Image: Alina Smutko. All rights reserved.The court also questioned FSB investigator Alexander Kompaneytsev, who claimed that Muslim Aliyev was in charge of the “Yalta and Alushta branch” of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Crimea. Aliyev allegedly answered to Inver Bekirov, leader of the “Yalta sub-branch”, who, in turns, answered to Vadim Siruk, “head of the Yalta cell”, and Emir-Usein Kuku, leader of “the cell in Koreiz and Simeiz” in the Yalta area. Bekirov had also allegedly recruited Refat Alimov and Arsen Dhzepparov.

Kompaneytsev went on to claim that the defendants were all preparing to seize power in Crimea. Inver Bekirov responded by saying that he first saw the FSB operative when he was already in custody at the detention centre, and that Kompaneintsev had come there to induce him to collaborate. Refusal to do so, Kompaneintsev had threatened, would result in the arrest of Bekirov’s nephew, Refat Alimov. Bekirov did indeed refuse – and Alimov was detained a few months later.

Creating and eliminating enemies

The international human rights organisation Amnesty International has declared Emir-Usein Kuku a “prisoner of conscience” and called on Russia to halt the prosecution of the “Yalta Six” immediately.

“Kuku was subjected to repeated pressure from the FSB before his arrest on 12 February, 2016, and his house was searched twice,” said Amnesty International Ukraine’s director Oksana Pokalchuk. “His wife and young son were harassed and intimidated by Russian intelligence agents after the human rights activist was already behind bars.”

In March of this year, the Russian human rights centre Memorial also declared defendants in the Yalta Hizb ut-Tahrir case to be political prisoners and demanded their immediate release. According to Memorial, the charges levelled against the six men are unfounded. The human rights activists are adamant: the defendants not only didn’t engage in any terrorist activities, they haven’t even committed any socially-dangerous acts.

“The ‘Yalta affair’ is part of a repressive campaign unleashed by Russian siloviki across the occupied peninsula. Further, the Hizb ut-Tahrir cases are among so-called ‘serial cases’: the FSB achieves ‘top results’ (dozens of convicted offenders) with minimal effort, launching mass prosecutions without any grounds for doing so,” Memorial said in a statement.


Men pray namaz on the anniversary of the Yalta Four’s arrest at Emir-Usein Kuku’s home. Image: Alina Smutko. All rights reserved.According to Memorial data, 237 individuals are currently detained or incarcerated in Russia in connection with their alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir, declared a terrorist organisation by the country’s Supreme Court in 2003. One hundred and eight people have already been convicted: 27 of them have been slapped with terms in excess of 15 years, with a further 13 sentenced to between 10 through 15 years; 33 are currently being tried; and 96 are under investigation. Memorial takes care to stress that the “list is undoubtedly incomplete”.

Thanks to a ruling by Russia’s Supreme Court, investigators no longer need to prove that defendants are “planning a terrorist attack” – it is sufficient merely to establish a link between them and Hizb ut-Tahrir. But even this sometimes proves an impossible task.

While outlawed in Russia, Hizb ut-Tahrir is legal in Ukraine. Prior to the annexation of Crimea, its supporters organised conferences and rallies across the peninsula. It seeks to recreate a caliphate that would unite the entire Islamic world, but advances its cause by pointedly non-violent means. Radical Islamist organisations have repeatedly criticised the movement for “shirking jihad”.

Many independent human rights organisations (Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Memorial Human Rights Center, the Civic Assistance Committee, For Human Rights, the SOVA Centre) believe that the organisation’s activities cannot be dubbed terrorism and consider the defendants in the Hizb ut-Tahrir cases to be political prisoners.

“Hizb ut-Tahrir isn’t recorded as having committed a single terrorist act,” says Svetlana Gannushkina, chair of the Civic Assistance Committee. “In my opinion, turning the organisation’s leaders into martyrs will only serve to swell its ranks. And trying them for preparing the overthrow of the system is just as illegitimate as trying the Communists for the idea of ​​building worldwide communism or for the theory of the withering away of the state.”

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Emine, mother of Refat Alimov, prays on the anniversary of the arrest of the Yalta Four at Emir-Usein Kuku’s home. Image: Alina Smutko. All rights reserved.Meanwhile, the prosecution continues to present its evidence in the Yalta Hizb ut-Tahrir case at the Rostov military court. The defendants themselves are pessimistic; so too are their lawyers.

“We will of course appeal against the verdict in the Supreme Court of Russia,” says Refat Alimov’s lawyer Edem Sememlyaev. “Overall, though, the efforts of the defence teams are geared towards the prospect of the case coming before the European Court of Human Rights.”

The only hope for political prisoners is exchange, as in the case of Ilmi Umerov and Akhtem Chyigoz, deputy chairs of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, who were released in October 2017. But this mechanism, too, is difficult to rely on. “The fact that the release of our political prisoners is being secured at a truly snail-like pace – five people in four years – testifies to the ineffective operation of the relevant state bodies (of Ukraine). It isn’t hard to calculate how long it’s going to take for all our prisoners to be released,” wrote Emir-Usein Kuku in his recent statement.

“Arsen tells me: a five-year term, well, I could just about live with that. I’d be released at 30. But 12 years or more? My daughter will be an adult by then, she’ll be ripe for marriage,” says Dzhepparov’s wife. Evelina, Arsen and Zarina’s daughter, is now seven. She recently penned a letter to her father: “How are you, my beloved babashechka (daddy – from baba, “father” in Crimean Tatar)? What are you up to? I miss you very much. What food are you eating there? What’s your mood like? Oh, how I miss you. I think about you at night and sometimes I want to cry.”


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