Thousands of men stand in a field in fezzes and skullcaps. Women are there too, but they stand separately. They have gathered in the village of Strohanivka, on the outskirts of Simferopol, for the Muslim funeral of three-year-old Musa Suleymanov. The toddler was found dead in a drain pit near his home in Strohanivka last month. Musa’s father, Ruslan Suleymanov, a Crimean Tatar activist is currently in pre-trial detention on what human rights groups say are politically motivated terrorism charges.
Before Musa's funeral. Photo: "Crimean Solidarity"
Crimean Tatars are the indigenous population of Crimea. They have been turned into a local minority over the hundreds of years of Russian colonialism. During the Soviet rule, the entire population was deported to Central Asia - by some estimates, over 100,000 or half of the nation died as a result. Russian settlers expropriated their lands. In the 1990s, Crimean Tatars were allowed to come back but now face increased discrimination and repressions as vocal opponents of the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Human rights groups say Russia has portrayed politically active Crimean Tatars and Muslims, who continue their peaceful resistance to the annexation, as terrorists. Persecuting Crimean Tatars and Muslims as part of Hizb ut-Tahrir - a pan Islamic organization outlawed as a terrorist group by Russia in 2003 - became a popular tool for authorities to suppress the dissent. They use numerous tactics to silence and intimidate Crimean Muslims, including arrests, home raids, and enforced disappearances.
Since 2014, more than 60 Muslims have been arrested in Crimea on charges of belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir. Many have also gone missing. Among the most prominent cases is that of Ervin Ibragimov, a Crimean Tatar activist from Bakhchisarai, who disappeared in 2016. His car was stopped by people in police uniforms, who dragged him into their car. The kidnapping was captured on surveillance cameras but Ibragimov still hasn’t been found.
The Search For Musa
Evening prayer during the search for Musa. Photo: "Crimean Solidarity"
Musa’s mother, Elzara Suleymanova, reported the toddler missing on the evening of July 24, after she and the older siblings couldn’t find him. He was last seen playing next to the family home with his sister, six-year-old Asiye. She went into the house briefly and when she returned, Musa was nowhere to be seen.
Thousands of people took part in the search for the toddler. Buses of volunteers came from the nearby town of Bakhchisarai and several cars brought unknown people with bottles of water.
“We are not Crimean Tatars, but the heart hurts for the baby, as for our own,” they said.
Scuba divers examined the pond near the home and volunteers formed groups, searching pits, yards and houses around the village. A police quadcopter with thermal imaging was even launched into the air.
The authorities, meanwhile, tried to place the blame on the family. The investigative committee immediately opened a criminal case and began interrogating Elzara and the older children. The Crimean prosecutor's office warned that it was planning on looking into the actions of the parents. Many perceived this as a threat to Elzara.
“The police kept asking if there were enemies, maybe relatives. Where is your husband? - they asked [...] maybe he had some enemies, maybe he owed someone money,” Elzara said.
“The children were interrogated … Late at night, when I was taken to the Investigative Committee in Simferopol, Asiye was with a neighbor, and the girl was called by the psychologist and investigator. They began to interrogate her in the street … Then the girl fell asleep, and at half past three at night they came again and said: wake her up to interrogate.”
Six-year-old Asiya Suleimanova with a photograph of her father. Photo from the Anton Naumliuk archive.
Investigators sent Elzara to undergo a polygraph, during which she was questioned on whether she knew the person involved in Musa's disappearance. They then brought up her husband and asked whether she had ever lied to law enforcement authorities.
Suleymanov was next to be interrogated. Authorities questioned him on whether he had contact with his family, among other matters, before even mentioning his missing son. When they did get to the issue of his missing child, they began accusing him of the disappearance.
“You are calm, what kind of father are you? If I were you, I would be ranting and raving,” said one of the men interrogating him. “What if your son was taken to Syria or buried somewhere, eh?”
They yelled at him until he swore on the Quran that he didn’t know where his son was. By the time Suleymanov was brought back to his cell, he was shaking. A day later, when he was told of Musa’s death, he lost consciousness.
The funeral of Musa Suleymanov. Photo: "Crimean Solidarity"
Home Raids and Hizb ut-Tahrir
A year ago, Strohanivka was cordoned off by riot police. They blocked all the exits while FSB operatives raided the homes of Crimean Muslims. Suleymanov was detained that day. He was among more than 20 Muslims to have been arrested as part of the Strohanivka raids. A few months later, his older brother Eskender was detained too.
Ruslan Suleymanov during a Crimean Solidarity stream.
According to the investigation, Suleymanov, together with four other Muslims, organized the Simferopol Hizb ut-Tahrir cell. The main evidence of their involvement are wiretap recordings organized by FSB operatives with the help of agents recruited from within the Muslim community. Authorities aren’t even looking for evidence of terrorist activities of the accused. It’s enough to prove that they belong to an organization that has been recognized as terrorist by Russian authorities.
But even that evidence is based on the expertise of a university linguistic institute, which analyzes the records and invariably comes to the conclusion that the speakers belong to Hizb ut-Tahrir, even if they never mention the organization.
Russian authorities have been increasing the punishment for Hizb ut-Tahrir cases over the years. Some of the first Crimean Muslims arrested in 2015 have already serviced their sentence. They have been allowed to return home under administrative supervision. Some of the more recent sentences have been upward of 12 years. Suleymanov is facing up to life imprisonment.
In response to Russia’s crackdown on the Muslim community, Crimean Tatar activists and the families of those arrested formed Crimean Solidarity. The group is viewed as a threat by security forces. Suleymanov was one the group’s citizen journalists.
In 2017, he filmed a home raid on a phone for Crimean Solidarity’s Facebook account and was arrested for five days. In autumn of that year, he took part in a solo picket in support of arrested Crimean Tatars and was fined.
In March last year, Suleymanov tried to leave Crimea for Kherson. But when he gave his passport to the Russian border guards, they seized it and took him in for interrogation, questioning him about religious Islamic organizations and who had influence among the Crimean Tatars. They released him in the evening with a torn passport, which he couldn’t use to cross the border. The next day, Strohanivka was cordoned off and Suleymanov was detained by FSB operatives.
When Musa disappeared, many recalled his father's persecution. The story of the missing boy quickly became political.
Locals Blame Russian Authorities
Musa’s body was found two days after the search began, in the drain pit in the courtyard, covered with a wooden deck, on which someone had put a small concrete brick block.
Almost immediately, the Investigative Committee announced that there were no signs of a violent death. Thousands of Crimeans attended Musa’s funeral, but his father wasn’t allowed to say goodbye to his son.
Photo: "Crimean Solidarity"
After Musa went missing, many recalled the disappearances of dozens of others, such as Crimean Tatar activist Ervin Ibragimov, who disappeared in 2016. Human rights activists have linked 17 such cases to Russian security forces and pro-Russian paramilitary groups.
When Musa was found dead, accusations against the Russian security forces only intensified.
How could one look for a child all over a village and not find him in a hole in the yard of his own house? The pit was examined several times by authorities.
Musa’s death may have been an accident but many blame it on the Russian authorities on the peninsula.
The Suleymanovs' courtyard. In the center there is a drain pit. Photo: "Crimean Solidarity"
“Why is Russia responsible for the tragedies that take place in Crimea? Because the crime, which began from the moment of Crimea’s occupation six years ago, continues to this day,” said former political prisoner Akhtem Chiygoz.
“Today, there are about a hundred of our political prisoners in detention. Their children are left without a father, and the mother takes care of them alone. Therefore, it is the criminal occupation authorities’ responsibility.”
/Translated and abridged by Natalie Vikhrov, with materials from Novaya Gazeta correspondent Anton Naumliuk. Courtesy of the Russian Language News Exchange.