Kyiv, Ukraine – A Russian military court has sentenced five Muslim men from annexed Crimea to up to 14 years in jail for their alleged membership in an “Islamist” organisation, a community figure told Al Jazeera.
Thursday’s decision appears to continue Moscow’s perennial pressure on Crimean Tatars, a Muslim minority that once dominated the Black Sea peninsula and fiercely resisted the 2014 annexation.
Dozens of Tatar men are awaiting trial or have been sentenced – and almost 200 children have been left “fatherless”, community leaders say.
The Southern District Military court in the southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don on Thursday sentenced Bilyal Adilov to 14 years in jail, while Izzet Abdullaev, Tofik Abdulgaziev, Vladlen Abdulkadyrov and Mejit Abdurakhmanov received 12-year sentences, activist Mumine Salieva told Al Jazeera.
The men were accused of being members of Hizb-ut Tahrir, an organisation that advocates for a peaceful restoration of a Muslim Caliphate. It freely operates in Ukraine but is banned in Russia as an “extremist” group.
Saliyeva said that the Kremlin specifically instructs courts not to release official information on the sentencing – while defendants await trial for years.
“Russian media outlets don’t write about it, and the court doesn’t release [the information] that is handed to lawyers,” the mother-of-four told Al Jazeera.
Her husband, Seyran Saliev, a tour guide and amateur wrestler, was arrested in 2017 and has been kept in a pretrial detention centre along with 22 other Muslim men.
They face up to 20 years in jail for the alleged membership of a “terrorist organisation”.
Thousands of Tatars living outside Crimea faced new threats after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24.
Russian forces were accused of pressuring a Tatar activist in the occupied southern city of Melitopol in March, and some Tatar exiles volunteered to fight the Russians.
Imprisonment and displacement
Since 2014, three dozen Tatar Muslims have been sentenced to lengthy prison sentences, including 17 this year alone, said Saliyeva.
A total of 197 Tatar children are “fatherless” as a result, she added.
She and other wives of jailed Muslims take their children to regular art classes, to play games, and have excursions to sites related to Tatar history. The children also have sessions with psychologists.
“For the spring break, [other] Tatar families invited them to their homes,” Salieva said, describing a spirit of community.
Meanwhile, hundreds of other Muslim and secular activists have fled Crimea for Ukraine, Turkey or other nations, fearing the crackdown.
Russian authorities follow the pattern of persecuting peaceful Muslims in Chechnya and other mostly Muslim regions, observers have said.
“Something similar was happening in Chechnya before the start of the second Chechen war [in 1999], when [Russian] media actively created an image of a ‘terrorist people’,” community leader Zair Smedlyaev told Al Jazeera in 2018.
The Crimean Tatars have been displaced and targeted during several episodes in history.
Soviet leader Josef Stalin deported the entire Crimean Tatar community from the Black Sea peninsula in 1944 accusing them of “collaborating” with German Nazis.
They were taken to Central Asia and the Ural Mountains in cattle cars, and up to a half of them died en route.
“During stops, soldiers yelled, ‘Got any dead? Bring them out!’” retired irrigation expert Nuri Emirvaliyev, who was 10 during the deportation, told Al Jazeera in 2018, while recalling his family’s two-month-long journey to Soviet Uzbekistan.
Tatars protested the deportation for decades, and only the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, allowed them to return to Crimea – without any compensation for lost property and kin.
In post-Soviet Ukraine, Tatars faced discrimination and were virtually barred from government and police jobs.
However, they sided with Kyiv during the 2014 annexation.
Tatar activists used smartphone apps to instantly inform the wider community about the movement of Russian troops and armoured vehicles, and blocked them from entering their neighbourhoods.
The Kremlin responded with a campaign of intimidation, abductions and pressure.
Several Tatar men disappeared, and neighbours saw some of them being forced into unmarked cars or cans by burly men.
Their families lost hope.
“Nothing is going to help, he is no more,” Elmira Zinetdinova, whose son Seyran disappeared on the way home in 2014, told Al Jazeera at the time.
She died of cancer in 2017 – without seeing him in those three years.
In more recent years, the Kremlin has also been trying to reshape, ban or suppress the cultural identity of Tatars by reducing the teaching in the Tatar in public schools, razing or rebuilding their historic sites.