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11.10.22

Nariman Dzhelyal, the Crimean Tatar activist standing up to the Russian occupation

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Nariman Dzhelyal shared his home in the village of Pervomaiske in Russian-occupied Crimea with his wife and four small children. On 4 September 2021, at 7.30 am, the police arrived to search his car and property. Deputy head of the Tatar people’s assembly – the Mejlis – Nariman, a vocal opponent of Russian rule, had clearly been in the sights of the authorities for some time. The officer in charge of the police operation informed him he was being detained. Nariman was ordered into a minibus packed with FSB Russian intelligence personnel, their faces scarily obscured by balaclavas. He was driven at high speed towards Simferopol. Arriving on the outskirts of the city, a bag was put over Nariman’s head. Then he found himself sitting handcuffed in a semi-basement room, still hooded, in an unknown location.

The trauma of World War II

Crimean Tatars number around 250,000. They are a Sunni Muslim indigenous ethnic group speaking a language related to Turkish. Their roots in the region go back to at least the 13th century.

In 2014, Russia illegally annexed the peninsula of Crimea, taking it from Ukraine and crushing all opposition. Crimean Tatar activists were arrested – many left the peninsula. But Nariman, a steadfast defender of human rights, stayed.

This land is destined to be an oasis of hospitality, not a parade ground for soldiers' boots and a training ground for tanks. And I couldn't leave her like that,” he said, explaining his decision not to flee Crimea.

And there is history here – the memory of an earlier exile is still deeply painful for many Crimean Tatars. In 1944, as World War II moved towards its bloody finale, the then-USSR reclaimed Crimea from the Axis powers. Stalin accused the Crimean Tatar community of collaborating with Nazi Germany. Draconian collective punishment followed: the banishment of the entire Crimean Tatar population from Crimea. Families were rounded up at gunpoint and packed into cattle trains. Thousands died in sealed wagons on the arduous journey east to Uzbekistan. In Central Asia, the Crimean Tatars became second-class citizens, prohibited from leaving their assigned area, and denied education and employment opportunities.

Born in Uzbekistan, Nariman grew up listening to these stories. Then when he was just a boy in the late 1980s, Gorbachev’s Perestroika brought change. The forced removals of 1944 were declared illegal, and the Crimean Tatar population began to go back to Crimea. Nariman returned with his family when he was seven, and together they built a house to live in. Under communist rule, Crimea had been part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Now, as the USSR began to disintegrate, Crimea became an autonomous republic within independent Ukraine.

Nariman still remembers vividly that long journey home and then the years his community spent establishing themselves and fighting for their right to be part of Crimean society. These are experiences that shaped him – he still believes self-preservation is the number one priority of the Crimean Tatar people.

Repression against the Crimean Tatars intensifies

In 2016, two years into Russia’s occupation of Crimea, Moscow outlawed the Crimean Tatars’ representative body, the Mejlis, claiming it promoted extremism. But Nariman continued his non-violent opposition to Russia’s rule. He wrote blogs, advocated for Crimean Tatars who were arrested or disappeared by the FSB, and continued to offer moral and practical support to his community. For this, he was harassed but largely left alone. In August 2021, he attended a conference in Kyiv that addressed the status of the Crimean Tatars. He went because he believed witnesses to what was happening in Crimea needed to be heard and because he wanted to invigorate local people at a time when they were cowed by Russian rule and when civic life was severely curtailed.

People needed to see examples of different behaviour… Dangerous and risky under occupation, but inspiring and hopeful too,” he said.

By travelling north to the Ukrainian capital, it seems Nariman crossed a red line for the Russian authorities – defiance that could no longer be tolerated. In the FSB detention centre in Simferopol, in September 2021, he was charged with sabotage. The allegations relate to an alleged terrorist attack on a local pipeline. Few details are known. Two other Crimean Tatars arrested on the same charge confessed to the crime, then retracted their submissions claiming they were coerced after being horribly tortured. Too well-known perhaps to be treated so barbarically, Nariman escaped serious physical abuse.

Trial and sentencing

Despite the lack of firm evidence and after a trial that failed to meet international human rights standards, the Kyiv district court of Simferopol found Nariman guilty of sabotage in late September 2022 and ordered his imprisonment for 17 years. Once released, he will be imposed a year and six months of movement restriction.

For now, Nariman has been detained for more than a year. At first, he was kept in strict and total isolation. Now he spends his time engaging his captors and fellow inmates in conversations about the Crimean Tatars, Crimea, its history and its future. Sometimes he writes poetry – the proposal of marriage he made to his wife when they were courting years ago was written in verse. She is able to visit him because she has been accepted as a public defender in his case under Russian criminal procedure.

In February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. Since August, Crimea has come under increasing pressure from Ukrainian forces seeking to liberate it from Russian control. Meanwhile, Nariman Dzhelyal, one of the greatest advocates for Crimean Tatar human rights, continues to linger behind bars.

No one will believe that the Crimean Tatar people who have been leading a completely non-violent struggle for their fundamental rights for many decades have suddenly descended into primitive and dirty terrorism,” he said about the charges against him.

Please join us in calling for the immediate release of Nariman Dzhelyal.

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