KYIV, Ukraine — The plight of a Muslim minority in Russian-occupied Crimea is highlighting a crackdown in a region that President Vladimir Putin has tried to present as an example of the Kremlin’s right to Ukrainian territory.
The Crimean Tatars consider the peninsula their historic homeland having ruled it from the 15th to the 18th centuries, and made up 12 percent of the area’s population of 2 million before Moscow illegally annexed it nine years ago. The area is considered occupied under international law.
Nine years after Russia’s takeover of the area, rights groups are raising the alarm about what they call Moscow’s persecution campaign, pointing to alleged reprisals against members of the Tatar community in Crimea because of their loyalty to Kyiv.
One of the highest-profile cases involves Nariman Dzelyal, a deputy head of the Crimean Tatar representative body, Mejlis. Seven months after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he was sentenced to 17 years imprisonment at the Supreme Court of Crimea for aiding the sabotage of a gas pipeline on the peninsula.
One of nearly 200 Tatars who Ukraine considers to be political prisoners in Crimea, Dzelyal vehemently denies the charge and several rights groups, including Amnesty International, have condemned his conviction as illegitimate. The State Department has also called for his release. Dzelyal’s lawyer, Nikolai Polozov, told NBC News his case is “undoubtedly politically motivated.”
NBC News has approached Crimean authorities for comment on Dzelyal’s case and accusations of repressions against the community but did not hear back.
In 2021 on March 18, the day Russia marks the anniversary of the annexation, President Vladimir Putin denied there had been any reprisals against Crimean Tatars. He said accusations of harassment and rights infringements of the community are “untrue,” according to a press statement on the Kremlin’s website.
Despite denials from his government, human rights groups have for years accused the Kremlin of cracking down on dissent, stifling opposition and shuttering critical media outlets.
Dzhelyal’s wife, Leviza, told NBC News she fears for her future and that of their four children, all of whom appear likely to enter adulthood before their father is freed.
In a series of messages on the Signal messaging application last week, Dzhelyal, 38, said her husband was detained in September 2021 and for 24 hours she did not know what happened to him until she saw him in court two days later.
While they both managed to appear stoical during the hearing, she said she “succumbed to emotions and started crying once her husband was taken away. It became clear his detention was “not just another act of intimidation,” Dzhelyal said.
Caring for their four children, aged between 14 and 2, had saved her from falling into depression, she said, adding that they had to “instantly grow up,” after their father was arrested.
“I knew I had reliable support with him and I was suddenly left without it,” she said, adding that she does get to see him at a detention center in the city of Simferopol, where she said he is being held.
Human Rights Watch called the charges against Dzhelyal “trumped up” and was one of several rights groups to criticize his treatment along with that of several other Tatar activists who remained loyal to Kyiv after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014 with a mixture of force and later, a referendum which was denounced as a sham by the U.S. and much of the international community.
Nine years on, Moscow shows no signs of loosening its grip on the Black Sea peninsula, home to ancient civilizations and a melting pot of ethnicities through the centuries.
This year, Putin again paid a visit to Crimea on the anniversary of the annexation, which Moscow sees as a historic “reunification” with the territory that was home to the Black Sea Fleet in Soviet times and the era of the Russian empire.
His trip came less than 24 hours after the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest, accusing him of the “war crime” of overseeing the unlawful deportation and transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia.
And in the latest round of the Kremlin’s nuclear saber-rattling on Friday, former Russian President and deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, said that any attempt by Ukraine to reclaim Crimea would warrant use of “any weapons,” including nuclear.
But Kyiv appears determined to take it back and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said Crimea is one of the reasons he wants more powerful weapons from the United States and NATO. “Crimea is our land, our territory,” he said in January. “Give us your weapons — we will return what is ours.”
Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk’s office also announced last month that Kyiv intended to start training personnel for law enforcement agencies and other public servants for the peninsula once it is liberated. And 64% of Ukrainians support the liberation of the whole of Ukraine, including Crimea, according to a recent poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology.
But in the meantime, Tamila Tasheva, Ukraine President’s permanent representative in Crimea, told NBC News in her office in central Kyiv, that she feared for the Tatar community which has a long history of oppression. Nearly 200,000 of ethnic Crimean Tatars were deported from Crimea by Soviet authorities in the 1940s, mostly to Central Asia, according to Ukraine’s government, resulting in a deep and longstanding mistrust of Moscow.
Many, including Tasheva’s family, have since returned to the peninsula where she said there were currently 181 political prisoners, 116 of whom are ethnic Tatars. The fact that Tatars made up almost 65 percent of those prisoners was “very revealing,” she said.
Calling for his release, Tasheva also said that she thought charges against Nariman Dzhelyal were trumped up and his case is just one example of how Moscow deals with a “population that’s not loyal” to Russia.
She added that her office was already working on what a de-occupied Crimea would look like, focusing on many aspects of public life, including ways to deal with those who have been collaborating with the occupying authorities and the Russian citizens who have made Crimea their home since 2014.
In the meantime, the peninsula continues to be a major strategic hub for Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine, providing important supply routes for its forces occupying the country’s south and military bases to support its war operations.
There have been several attacks on Russian targets in Crimea. Ukraine has never claimed them, but Kyiv also has sound military reasons to try to ensure that the peninsula can’t function as a site to launch operations against Ukrainian forces and civilians now and in the future, according to Neil Melvin, the director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank.
But he cautioned that an assault on Crimea would “likely lead to major casualties for Ukraine,” and “Ukrainian forces would be attacking in a region where significant parts of the civilian population are sympathetic to Russia.”
They might actively resist “and turn on groups there loyal to Kyiv, for example elements of the Crimean Tatar community, leading to ethnic cleansing,” he said.
For Tasheva however, there is only one option — the return of Crimea to Ukraine.
“Ukraine has never been so united in the idea of returning all territories, including Crimea,” she said. “Never has Crimea figured into conversations so powerfully — that we will fight for it, including militarily. It gives me hope.”
Daryna Mayer reported from Kyiv. Yuliya Talmazan from London.