This month, Russia released two Crimean Tatar leaders it had imprisoned over their opposition to Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
The Russian authorities agreed to free Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov following talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Chiygoz and Umerov, both deputy chairmen of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis assembly, were initially released to Turkey, and then returned to Kyiv, Ukraine.
After spending two years in pretrial detention, Chiygoz was sentenced in September to eight years in prison for organizing “mass disturbances” outside the Crimean Supreme Council in February 2014 as Russia was annexing the peninsula. His trial was marked by a number of serious flaws, including the use of “secret witnesses” and the fact Chiygoz was only allowed to appear in court via video link.
Hromadske sat down with Akhtem Chiygoz to discuss the case against him, the conditions he faced in Russian imprisonment and his hopes for the future.
I tried to keep my emotions in check. People’s support is something that gave me a sense of positivity and strength, and not only me, but also people who are still sitting there [in prison] because of their principles. Nonetheless, and maybe more importantly, the position of the state also matters. We consider ourselves Ukrainian citizens. How the state and society react to this is in the foreground. We’ve seen the statements Ukraine has made, and its support is something very close to our hearts, for our compatriots, Ukrainian citizens living in Crimea.
The conditions that they detain people in at the Simferopol detention facility leave much to be desired, to say the least. Moreover, you were there 24/7, they didn’t even take you to the court hearings, you appeared via video link...
Yes, I only ever moved from one cell to another…
In fact, all your communication with the outside world happened via lawyers and your wife who was a representative of your defense, right? Why do you think they stopped taking you to the court?
Technically it looked like this: Chyigoz is taken to the court, hundreds of people gather, and as a result, it’s not just Chyigoz in opposition, but the whole society. Despite the obstacles – searches, security barriers, metal detectors, rude behavior, small rooms with enough space only for 5-6 people – people have overcome that and fought against that. They had to close the streets, put hundreds of special forces there. At first, when my case was heard, together with my brothers Ali and Mustafa, it had a major resonance and they had some trouble. When they sent the case for further сinvestigation, they decided to divide it. And I was told that, in general, it was the first time the court of first instance conducted hearings via video since the adoption of this law in Russia.
Ali Asanov, Mustafa Degermenzhi and other people involved in the so-called “February 26 case” received a proposal to give evidence against you in exchange for freedom. I assume that you also received this proposal?
Of course. Before the arrest they were saying that the level of trust to me and reputation among the compatriots is impressive, especially after the deportation of Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov. But in general they failed; they understood that all their efforts to make me switch to their side were in vain. And then as a result they understood that it would be a real problem – any kind of communication with me, even a dialogue was a big problem for them.
Through whom did they tried to reach you?
When I was put to the detention facility, they tried to reach me through different people, investigators; a special group was working on my case, they were trying to reach me through the Federal Security Service employees. The proposals I received… They are awful because they are not about me personally, but about the nation, you have to play a rotten trick on your people, on your state. I know some people who signed such documents, but the illusion of freedom turned into shame for them. Probably, it’s possible to live with it, if they do manage to live, but you definitely lose your dignity. One moment it will become absolutely clear. These proposals caused me no emotions at all. I just denied them. In this case, regarding Mustafa and Ali, to partly admit guilt is one thing, but to accept the accusation in this way is shameful, a betrayal of the people. There's a whole list of surnames. So they did not do that. And when in the presence of the investigator, the so-called mufti, the highest religious rank, suggested that we commit a sin against our countrymen and fellow Muslims, they said: "How can you ask us to do such a thing? We will not sign it".
I would like to clarify, are you talking about Simferopol Mufti Emiral Ablayev?
Yes! And he says: “He, Akhtem Chyigoz, will be imprisoned anyway, he will be sent to jail, there is a need to save you”.
What exactly did they want from you? To recognize the authority of [pro-Kremlin Crimean leader Sergei] Aksyonov and the Kremlin in Crimea on behalf the Mejlis?
Who is Aksyonov? Why would I recognize him? We weren’t speaking about “puppets”. Those who spoke to me represented the central authority of the Russian Federation. They didn’t speak about the “puppets” either. We were talking about basic things – the self-determination of people in such conditions, the call for participation in elections, for example. Again, I had a conversation prior to my imprisonment. One man insisted that I must recognize the authority of Russia. And I said: “If Russia needs to be recognized by Chyigoz, what kind of country is that? That’s it. Some things were so absurd that I even had no desire to discuss them. Both my people and I understood that this is a crime against the people. They [Russian military] repeatedly emphasized that, according to prison standards, I am "old"; that at such an age it turns into an issue of survival. They told me to think about my children, my wife, my grandchildren, they asked if I needed all this trouble.
What was your reaction when you were taken to a meeting with Ukrainian ombudsman Lutkovska?
When they arrived, the room was small, and there were a lot of policemen, four generals, prosecutors, people from the Federal Service for the Execution of Sentences in Russia and [human rights commissioner Tatiana] Moskalkova with [Ukrainian ombudsman] Valeria Lutkovska. There is such an atmosphere now in Crimea that you go into a deep depression. And when Lutkovska asked how I felt, I said that we wouldn’t talk about that, I wanted her to convey to the people of Ukraine that that I looked into the faces of the generals and said that I wouldn’t get on my knees, that I wasn’t afraid of them. And I saw that Lutkovska shared my position. And after that, I generally asked them to get out, and the generals turned and silently walked out. Moskalkova and Lutkovska, my lawyer, wife and I remained. Moskalkova asked if she could stay. I said, well, you're a woman, of course, of course.
A couple of days ago you finally met your father in Kyiv. What were the first words you said to one another?
It’s a pity that my mother isn’t with us… that she didn’t live to see this day. The path of every person in this world, their actions are assessed by society. I was calm when I knew that thousands of my compatriots were at my mother’s funeral and said that… they were all her children.
Judging by the official document you showed at the airport, you were supposedly accompanied back home. However, in reality, you were brought to Ankara. What are you further plans?
I understand that my position on the issue of citizenship, my adherence to principles, is the price for my deportation. But I'm not going to try to conduct any kind of activity that could be described as "rallies". No. I'll just go home. We are brought up in such a way. Let it be a long way off, for me in particular, but I'll go home. And I'm sure I'll get home. Whatever is waiting for me there... but we will be there. No matter what.
/Translated by Olga Kuchmagra
/Introduction by Sofia Fedeczko