EXCLUSIVE: Freed Crimean Tatar Leader On Russian Imprisonment
8 November, 2017

Ilmi Umerov and Akhtem Chiygoz — two Crimean Tatar leaders imprisoned in Russia — returned to Ukraine last week after being released and sent to Turkey.

Despite serving lengthy, politically motivated prison sentences, the two deputy chairmen of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis assembly were freed following negotiations between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Ilmi Umerov was sentenced to two years imprisonment on separatism charges for his open opposition to Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014. The allegation stemmed from a March 2016 television appearance in which Umerov stated that Russian forces should pull out of Crimea and Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

Hromadske sat down with Umerov to discuss his experience of Russian detention, his release, and his hopes for the future of Crimea.

It’s usually difficult for non-Crimeans to understand what life is like for the  people who don't recognize the occupation but are forced to live with it. What does occupation feel like from the inside?

It’s not only difficult for non-Crimeans to understand, but for the Crimean residents who are loyal to the occupation authorities too. They pretend that nothing is happening. But really there is a de facto occupation regime in Crimea and Russians control everything there. They have a principle – “loyalty is a must.” Neither dissent nor denial is welcome. Moreover, it’s not allowed.

During the three years of annexation, who disappointed you the most and who surprised you?

I don’t want to say who disappointed me. Some people whom I considered close and whom I trusted turned out to be collaborators, and, to some extent, traitor in my eyes. My friends, colleagues, mentors are among them. I just don’t want to say their names.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

Who surprised you among the people you didn’t expect to?

It’s pleasantly surprising when people who already had to adapt to the occupation regime don't lose [their] hope, trade in their values or swear an oath to the de facto Russian authorities in Crimea. For instance, one man, Server-ah Karametov, who carried out a solo protest, was given a 10-day administrative detention and fined 10,000 roubles. Since then, eight people took to the streets. When they were fined, 100 people came out! I'm sure that if those people were fined, a thousand would come out.

READ MORE: Russia Frees Imprisoned Crimean Tatar Leaders, Sends Them To Turkey

Another way in which people show their support for the arrested and missing people is through duas (prayer sessions). But even these events seem to be monitored by the authorities.

Despite the fact we're constantly under surveillance, that's one thing that's not forbidden. The authorities simply can’t ban praying.

Well, you can't call praying an unauthorized rally…

But there were attempts [to do that]. It didn’t result in any punishments but there were attempts. These prayers are usually followed by speeches in which people mention certain problems [and] talk about the situation in general. It’s kind of a new method in the national movement. Prayers unite people, make them feel less alone, and [they] see that there are many other people who do not recognize Russian jurisdiction in Crimea.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

Is it hard being monitored in this way? Do they try to hide it?

They don’t hide. Just come, sit next to us and join in with the event.

Are they locals or not?

Usually, they are people from the Federal Security Services or the police.

Are they locals?

It depends. But mainly locals.

What is the attitude toward people who, for example, used to work in Ukrainian law enforcement agencies and have now joined the Russian police?

It depends on the person. If someone is aggressive, rude, then people’s attitude toward him will reflect that.

There are even representatives of the Mejlis who have started cooperating with the occupation authorities; the clergy have tried to justify the actions of the military in Crimea. At the press-conference, Akhtem Chyigoz said that he had received proposals like this. What about you? Have they approached you personally? What do they offer in exchange for stopping the repression?

A criminal case was opened against me because of my position, my opinion, my convictions. My criminal record is clean. With regards to me, I haven’t received such proposals but I’ve heard of them.

Haven’t they asked you to keep silent?

Of course. They told me that it would lead to nothing good, that I would be arrested despite my age, my diagnosis. I faced that. However, nobody has asked me to pledge loyalty or recognize Russian jurisdiction in Crimea. I’ve never received these kinds of proposals. Maybe it’s because they know me and my position well.

You have experience with struggling against the system. You started working to protect the rights of your people while you were at school.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

When I was in 10th grade, together with a couple of my classmates and my younger brother Bekir, we handed out brochures calling Crimean Tatars to fight to return to their homeland, to Crimea. Then a criminal case was opened against us, which didn’t amount to anything. A lot of people gathered, they simply couldn’t start the court hearings.  We were then invited to the party's regional committee… Its secretary, Shamsudinov, told us and our parents that the case would be closed, that they had brought us up well and we would bring benefits to our homeland. That’s how the case was closed.

READ MORE: Home Sweet Home: Crimean Political Prisoners Return To Ukraine

On October 12, two FSB colonels from Moscow approached me. They said that the Turkish president had agreed with the Russian president to release me and they suggested I write a letter to Putin asking for a pardon. When I refused, they resorted to methods used widely in the USSR. They said that Akhtem [Chiygoz] had already agreed; that Mustafa [Dzhemilev] and Refat [Chubarov] had let us down, that they will travel across the world, stay at expensive hotels, drink expensive coffee while we serve our sentences. The conversation went badly, because we almost kicked them out. So they started threatening to send us to the Kharp colony in Yamalo-Nenets, in the far north. After that we didn’t communicate, so there were no other proposals. Then I was taken from the hospital and brought to Simferopol airport. When they put me to the plane, Akhtem Chyigoz was already there. We didn’t get the chance to talk or to greet each other. He sat at the end of the plane, I sat in the middle. 15 people accompanied us. The plane landed in Anapa to refuel and then flew on.

Did you not know about the agreement with [Turkish President] Erdogan then?

I only knew that Erdogan had a conversation with Putin. But I refused to write a petition for a pardon. I had a feeling that they were taking me to Siberia, but when I saw the houses with red roofs and the Turkish mosque from the cabin window, I realized that we were flying to Turkey. The plane landed at Ankara airport. Two hundred meters away from the plane there was a bus with several people in it. Akhtem got off the plane first and went to the bus, then I was shown the way. There was no contact between those who were accompanying us and those who met us.

So they just showed you the way to the bus, right?

Yes, and I walked from the plane to the bus. There I greeted and hugged Akhtem for the first time, I haven’t seen him for three years.  

In a way, Russia has achieved its goal. Both you and Akhtem were physically removed from Crimean territory. It’s like a soft way of getting rid of you, right?

It's been a week and I still don’t know whether it was an order or not. Nobody showed it to me, nobody imposed any conditions on whether I can enter Crimea or not. If not, then why not? I’ve already made several statements, but will repeat it once again: I want to return to Crimea.

What is your dream?

To return to Crimea.

/By Max Koshelev