On August 9, court proceedings against Akhtem Chiygoz concluded. Now, it’s a waiting game. In one month, the judge will deliver a verdict — and no one is particularly hopeful.
That’s because Chiygoz is a Crimean Tatar and the deputy chairman of his people’s Mejlis (Assembly). Since 2014, Chiygoz and the Mejilis have opposed Russia’s occupation of their homeland, Crimea.
Chiygoz stands accused of organizing mass riots in the Crimean capital of Simferopol in 2014, for which he may receive up to eight years in prison. The Tatar leader has not been allowed into the courtroom for over a year, taking part in his trial only by video conference. This final court session was no exception.
Photo credit: Sviltana Borysovska/UNIAN
Nonetheless, the Chiygoz delivered his final statement to the court. Ever defiant, he assailed the case against him as political and condemned Russian control over his homeland.
“The incident [in question], which took place...at a peaceful protest announced by the Crimean Tatar people, was provoked by those who later contributed to the military takeover of Crimea,” Chiygoz said. “[The court] is not judging those who betrayed [the country], who had the aim and intention of altering the territorial wholeness of Ukraine, who later abducted and murdered people, illegally giving themselves the authority to rule the people.”
Arrested for Protest
Chiygoz was arrested in January 2015 for organizing a pro-Ukrainian rally in front of the Supreme Council of Crimea on February 26, 2014, as Russia was annexing the Crimean peninsula. Around ten thousand Crimean Tatars attended the rally. However, the protest turned violent after clashes erupted with a smaller pro-Russian protest nearby.
Since then, the case has been characterized by serious flaws. The court questioned dozens of witnesses, yet only a few confirmed Chiygoz’s presence at the protest. Additionally the court allowed “secret witnesses” to testify. These people were reportedly members of the Mejlis, but showed little knowledge of the organization and its functions.
Furthermore, the trial revealed that Chiygoz did not call people to attend the protest. That was done by another member of the Mejlis, Zaur Smirnov. Yet Smirnov is facing no charges. Since the annexation, he has gone to work in the “administration” of the Kremlin-controlled Crimean governor, Sergei Aksyonov.
During his final statement, Chiygoz stressed that the case was politically-motivated, and witness testimony consisted of “guesses and assumptions.”.
He called the evidence in the case “sick fantasies,” and alleged that three of the six “secret witnesses” against him simply lied. Their statements contradicted video evidence and information that had previously been made public in court, he added.
“The occupying country is satisfied with this tribunal...We cannot speak of the court’s objectivity and independence,” Chiygoz said. “I am destined to accept this sentence as a sentence for all Crimean Tatar people from the Russian Federation, which occupied my homeland.”
History of Persecution
The Crimean Tatars are a Turkish ethnic group native to the Crimean Peninsula. Until the mid-19th century, they constituted the majority of Crimea’s population. As an ethnic group, the Tatars have faced several centuries of persecution in their ancestral homeland by external rulers.
Long controlled by the Ottoman Empire, the Crimean Khanate first broke free in 1774 after the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca ended the Russo-Turkish War (1768-1774). This independence was short-lived. In 1793, the Russian Empire annexed the region, causing a mass exodus of Crimean Tatars. Some left of their own volition. Others were forcibly expelled.
During WWII, 15,000–20,000 Tatars may have collaborated with the Axis Powers in return for promises of national autonomy. However, after the Red Army retook control of the peninsula in May 1944, the USSR State Defense Committee ordered that the entire Tatar population be deported from Crimea. This even included the families of those who served in the Soviet military. Crimean Tatars were deemed an enemy ethnicity and a fifth column.
At least 190,000 people were exiled as a collective punishment for collaboration. The vast majority were sent to Central Asia.
“The reason behind the mass deportation, and, in fact, genocide, was the Russian empire’s wish, and later the USSR’s wish, to rid Crimea of Crimean Tatars and erase our people from history,” Chiygoz said in his final statement.
The Soviet Union actively prevented Crimean Tatars from returning to their homeland. In 1967, some managed to return to Crimea. However, only in 1989, near the end of the Soviet Union, did the USSR Parliament condemn the deportation of the Crimean Tatars and allow the exiles to return to their homeland.
But the Tatars’ return to Crimea has been a slow and fragile process. According to Ukraine’s last census in 2001, only 248,000 Ukrainian citizens identify themselves as Crimean Tatars. The vast majority of them — 98% — resided on the Crimean peninsula, where they remained a minority among the islands nearly 2 million residents.
Historic persecution has left the Crimean Tatar population with deep resentment against the Soviet Union and its successor, Russia. In the current conflict between Kyiv and Moscow, Crimean Tatars mainly support Ukraine and disapprove of the Russian annexation of Crimea.
During the illegal Crimean referendum on joining the Russian Federation, carried out in Crimea in 2014, most Tatars abstained from voting as a collective act of protest.
In his final statement, Chiygoz stressed the Tatars’ patriotism to Crimea.
“For Crimean Tatars, as for other people, the notions of civic duty, patriotism, [and] national dignity are special values,” he said. “On February 26, 2014, Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainian citizens came out in protest once again against threats to the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and with demands to bring the opportunists and political scoundrels to justice.”
Despite the repressive methods of the Russian authorities, the Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainian citizens are not afraid, Chiygoz said.
“Despite numerous provocations, abductions, raids, arrests, the ban on commemorating mourning days, and large fines, Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainian citizens fulfilled, and are fulfilling, their civic duty,” he said. This has “angered and forced the court to put innocent people on trial.”