How Crimean Tatars Defy Moscow's Pressure

Bakhchisaray, Ukraine - Mumine Saliyeva cannot forget how masked, gun-toting pro-Russian security officers pounded on her door last October. They arrived to search her apartment and arrest her husband, Seiran Saliyev.

"Every day, I check a hundred times whether the door is locked, I get up at night to check, check again before my morning prayer," the fine-featured 32-year-old woman in a white headscarf told Al Jazeera.

"The echo of that knock is still in my ears; I can't do anything about it."

This was not Saliyev's first search and arrest.

In January 2017, the tour guide and amateur wrestler was sentenced to 12 days of detention for "dissemination of extremist materials" - for posting songs of a Chechen folk singer and former separatist fighter that are banned in Russia.

In May 2016, Saliyev used a mosque sound system to announce searches in the apartments of Tatar activists.

Dozens gathered to witness the searches, and a court later fined Saliyev 20,000 rubles ($350) for "organising an illegal rally."

Now he faces up to 20 years in jail for "membership in a terrorist organisation".

Pro-Russian police allege he is an activist of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organisation that strives to peacefully restore a Muslim caliphate and operates freely in Ukraine and many Western nations. But Russia outlawed it as "extremist."

In late January, pro-Russian authorities forcibly placed Saliyev in a psychiatric institution in a move that echoes totalitarian Soviet practices of "punitive psychiatry."

A slow genocide?

The Turkic-speaking, Muslim ethnic group of 250,000, or about 12 percent of Crimea's population, largely resisted the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

They held protests, blocked highways and prevented Russian troops, armoured personnel carriers and tanks from entering their villages.

While Crimea's ethnic Russian majority mostly welcomed the annexation, the response of Tatars was based on bitter memories drummed into their collective psyche


Imperial Russia conquered their state, the Khanate of Crimea, in 1783, and over the next century, tens of thousands of Tatars fled to Ottoman Turkey.

In 1944, their entire community was deported, mostly to Central Asia, for alleged "collaboration" with German Nazis. Almost half of them died of diseases and starvation.

Crimean Tatars held Ukrainian and Tatar flags last year while commemorating the 70th anniversary of the deportation of Tatars from Crimea [ File: Getty Images]

"During stops, soldiers yelled, 'Got any dead? Bring them out!'" Nuri Emirvaliyev, a frail, 83-year-old historian who was 10 during the deportation, told Al Jazeera while recalling his family's two-month-long journey in cattle cars to Soviet Uzbekistan.

After decades of protests, arrests and activists that united the community, the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, allowed Tatars to return to Crimea. They never got their property back, and in post-Soviet Ukraine, they faced discrimination and were virtually barred from government and police jobs.

And then, the annexation came.

"In 1944, we were a nation of 'traitors,' now we are a nation of 'terrorists'," Server Mustafayev, an activist of Crimean Solidarity, a group that helps political prisoners and their families, told Al Jazeera.

'They groped our women'

Tatars are not the only group targeted for their anti-Kremlin stance.

Pro-Ukrainian, anti-corruption activists and Jehovah's Witnesses have been detained, deported, tortured, sentenced to fines and up to 20 years in jail, rights groups say.

But Tatars are by far the largest stratum of Crimea's population to face persecution, and their peaceful resistance is seen almost daily. Dozens flock to each search, arrest or court session. They post videos and comments online, triggering squalls of reposts and media reports.

Mere witnessing proves harder than it seems.

"They provoked us, groped our women, shot in the air," a white-bearded Muslim man in an auburn astrakhan hat told Al Jazeera, describing recent searches and arrests.

Hundreds held single-person pickets throughout Crimea holding banners that read "Tatars are not terrorists" and "Return fathers to their children." At least 72 were arrested and fined, although Russian law does not prohibit such pickets.

They collect money to pay the fines - and mockingly hand over buckets and plastic containers full of coins. They hire lawyers, send food parcels and postcards to jailed activists and pitch in to help their families and children.

Once a month, they bring the children together for drawing and horse-riding lessons, visits to historic sites - and a chance to share their pain.

The children "make drawings of their fathers in handcuffs, tell each other, 'Don't worry, your dad is coming back soon,'" Dilyara Ibragimova, a 30-year-old mother of four, told Al Jazeera. Her husband Timur Ibragimov was arrested together with Saliyev and also faces up to 20 years in jail.

David vs Goliath

The Kremlin praises Crimea's "comeback to Russia" as bloodless and voluntary.

But a day before the March 18, 2014 "referendum", Tatar activist Reshat Ametov was found dead - covered in cuts and bruises, with eyes poked out, next to a pair of handcuffs.

Three days earlier, the 39-year-old father of three was forced into a car by three camouflage-wearing pro-Russian "self-defence fighters" during his one-man protest.

Since then, more than a dozen Tatars have disappeared without a trace; some were seen kidnapped by burly men, US-based Human Rights Watch said in November.

Two were found dead.

Hundreds of Tatars, most of them observant Muslims, have been arrested and interrogated, had their houses searched and religious books confiscated.

At least 26 were sentenced to up to 15 years in jail on charges ranging from "separatism" to "terrorism" to "organisation of mass riots."