This Is What Three Years Of Crimea Annexation Really Feel Like
3 March, 2017

To mark the third anniversary of Russia’s occupation of Crimea, Hromadske interviewed Emil Kurbedinov – a human rights lawyer from Crimea, recently imprisoned for ten days on administrative charges.

His main case is the so-called “Hizb ut-Tahrir” case, in which nineteen people are accused of trying to overthrow the government. “Hizb ut-Tahrir” is a pan-Islamic organisation which has chapters all over the world. 

In the interview he talks about Russian repression, the families of the convicted, his own imprisonment and what everyone of us can do to help.

We’ve been following the events in Crimea closely. Meanwhile we are approaching the third anniversary of its occupation by Russia. What are the main issues we have to consider?

It’s difficult to tell what is important and what is not. Repression has taken various forms and each one is followed through rigorously and demands our whole attention. One of the main issues in Crimea is the arrest of activists, which happened only few days ago. We have been saying this for a long time, that there would be mass arrests, since Russia’s main goal is to liquidate all transparency in court hearings, in raids and other “special operations”.

Marlen Mustafa was accused because his social network page contained some “extremist material”. It was footage from a demonstration he put online some years ago. Some “expert” gave a totally biased statement, which was the reason he was searched. But there will always be people who won't stand by and watch, especially if those people are neighbours. Some of them took it upon themselves to reveal what is going on there. They decided to film these searches without obstructing the FSB, just to show people what is happening.

There were a lot of people but ten were arrested because of an invented accusation. Allegedly, by standing there, they obstructed the traffic and pedestrians. This is of course, not true. There is a video where one of the policemen warns the demonstrators that they are breaking the law and tells them to disperse and then immediately starts arresting them. So they didn’t even give them a chance to disperse. I don’t know whether they were prepared for it, or whether they just saw on arrival that there were no journalists or lawyers, but the accusation was entirely invented.

The funniest thing was when we were having our court hearing, there were supposedly three witnesses, who allegedly saw some public order offenses being committed. When the defence demanded to bring these witnesses forward, only one came. He was an elderly man and he explained in the first hearing that he just went out to buy bread, and when he left the shop a policeman approached him and asked him to sign a piece of paper. He said that he didn’t even see what was written on it. He repeated his statement ten times in ten hearings, and ten times the court ignored it. The other witnesses simply weren’t summoned in fear that they would give similar testimonies.

Who is profiting from this? What do they gain?

The task is prevention. People get scared so they stay at home. When you get arrested a second time for the same charge you can get up to 30 days in prison and pay a fine of 150 thousand roubles upwards. The third time it’s a criminal offense. The task is to prevent this from being revealed and preventing media coverage, so people don’t see that there is unity, mutual support and opposition. They want it to be like in some Russian regions, where people run away immediately if they see prisoner transport vehicles approaching. They want people to do what they are told.

Could you tell us about the case of Ruslan Zitulayev?

In September 2016, three people were sentenced to five years in prison. Ruslan was sentenced to seven, but he was then sentenced not as an instigator but as a participant. Instigators get from fifteen years upwards. Fifteen to twenty or life sentence.

Which case was this?

That’s the so-called “Hizb ut-Tahrir case”. The “Sevastopol four” – Ruslan Zitulayev, Firat Sayfulayev, Yuri Primov and Rustem Vaidov – were arrested at the beginning of 2015. I think the court saw how absurd the whole accusation was and what kind of evidence the prosecution was presenting, so everyone got the minimum sentence – five years. There weren’t even any fees and all the expenses (about half a million) were paid from the government budget. For us, it was a sign that the court understood how absurd this whole situation is, but under this Russian reality they couldn’t just acquit them. So the prosecutors demanded to review the whole thing, in their opinion Ruslan was an organiser. So the Supreme Court ruled in favour and now he is on trial as an organiser. The hearings will take place again, where the same witnesses will be summoned and one half of those witnesses will testify, again, that they were threatened to sign it and the other half didn’t read what they were signing. Then – having the same evidence as before – the court will reach a different conclusion. It’s ridiculous.

What happens to their families?

The families receive all kinds of support. They have united into a so-called “Crimean solidarity”, where they get psychological help, financial help and so on. The help is mutual and the families understand that their husbands are not criminals, but people who fight for their rights and the truth.

What help do you need as a lawyer? You have so many cases, so much work.

The most important thing is media coverage. We try to put some stuff online. We would like people to get involved in this process, so that the international community and international organisations receive as much information as possible and are able to see what is really going on here. We have reached the point where the lawyers of the persecuted are starting to be persecuted themselves.

You have been arrested. What was important and how were you treated?

I was treated decently, if one can say that at this stage. I was arrested in Bakhchysarai and brought to Simferopol. They quickly constructed a case against me, took me to court and sentenced me to ten days prison. I spent ten days in solitary confinement. The conditions were alright in comparison to those in detention centre: it was warm, I was brought food.

But I was disturbed in my work. Our information carriers with legal professional privilege were confiscated. They searched all my things, at home and at the office as well. Our equipment has been damaged, we can’t use it anymore.

How do they choose the people they arrest?

We haven’t found any evidence suggesting that these people were involved in any terroristic activity, even if among these nineteen arrested were Hizb ut-Tahrir members. So the issue here is the Russian law concerning extremism and terrorism. And it’s so incomplete, vague and incompatible with international norms, that it’s obviously only an instrument to fight dissidents and opposition.

Some lawyers don’t want to get involved in this. And this is exactly what helps Russia. They label people “terrorists”, knowing that this will create a vacuum around them. Recently, I get the feeling that more and more people understand that this is just an instrument and nothing else.

How can one speak of extremism in regard to these guys, who work on construction sites, sell fruits and vegetables and have five kids? They are being accused of staging an anti-governmental coup. It’s absurd.

It’s now three years since the occupation of Crimea. It’s time for a recap.

Right now the situation gets worse and worse. Russia is tightening its grip. I don’t see any adequate measures being taken by Russia. In the meantime, they arrested eleven people on one day and locked them up for five days on made up charges, with falsified materials. But on the other hand, we are witnessing a bond growing between us all. There are all kinds of people here, not just Crimean Tatars and Muslims, but also Ukrainian activists and so on. They all behave differently now, the gloves are off.

You are specialised in Russian law. How is the situation beyond Crimea different?

The special aspect of the Crimean case is that there is so much attention. I’m sure in Russia there are cases far more severe than this. There are regions where people disappear in large numbers and no one even knows about it. They’ve created a kind of vacuum, so now people are afraid to go out and say something. Here it is different because of the attention. Many people lament that there is not enough attention, but still, it has great significance. The media does its job and gives the activists a break. It’s a big plus.

What are you personally afraid of?

I don’t know what to be afraid of. Maybe I just don’t care anymore. I have to say that I haven’t even thought of running away. Not yet. And I hope that I won’t in the future either. We tell the truth, we work within the boundaries of law and will continue to do so.

Thank you.