Kyiv, Ukraine – A Russian military court has sentenced five Muslim men from annexed Crimea to up to 14 years in prison for their alleged membership of an “Islamist” organization, a community figure told Al Jazeera.
Thursday’s decision appears to continue Moscow’s ongoing pressure on the Crimean Tatars, a Muslim minority that once dominated the Black Sea peninsula and fiercely resisted 2014 annexation.
Dozens of Tatar men are awaiting trial or have been sentenced – and nearly 200 children have been left “fatherless”, according to community leaders.
The Southern District Military Court in the southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don on Thursday sentenced Bilyal Adilov to 14 years in prison, while Izzet Abdullaev, Tofik Abdulgaziev, Vladlen Abdulkadyrov and Mejit Abdurakhmanov were sentenced to 12 years in prison, activist Mumine Salieva told Al Jazeera. .
The men were accused of being members of Hizb-ut Tahrir, an organization which advocates for the peaceful restoration of a Muslim caliphate. It operates freely in Ukraine but is banned in Russia as an “extremist” group.
Saliyeva said the Kremlin was specifically ordering the courts not to release official sentencing information – as the defendants awaited trial for years.
“Russian media do not write about this, and the court does not publish [the information] which is handed over to the lawyers,” the mother of four told Al Jazeera.
Her husband, Seyran Saliev, a tour guide and amateur wrestler, was arrested in 2017 and held in a remand center along with 22 other Muslim men.
They risk up to 20 years in prison for alleged membership of a “terrorist organization”.
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 militant in the occupied town 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 long prison terms, including 17 this year alone, Saliyeva said.
A total of 197 Tatar children are “fatherless”, she added.
She and other wives of imprisoned Muslims take their children to regular art lessons, games and excursions to sites related to Tatar history. Children also have sessions with psychologists.
“For spring break, [other] Tatar families invited them to their homes,” Salieva said, describing a sense of community.
Meanwhile, hundreds of other Muslim and secular activists have fled Crimea for Ukraine, Turkey or other countries, fearing repression.
Russian authorities follow the pattern of persecution of peaceful Muslims in Chechnya and other predominantly Muslim regions, observers said.
“Something similar was happening in Chechnya before the start of the Second Chechen War [in 1999]when [Russian] the media actively created the image of a ‘terrorist people’,” community leader Zair Smedlyaev told Al Jazeera in 2018.
Crimean Tatars have been displaced and targeted in several episodes of history.
Soviet leader Josef Stalin expelled the entire Crimean Tatar community from the Black Sea peninsula in 1944, accusing them of “collaborating” with the German Nazis.
They were taken to Central Asia and the Ural Mountains in cattle cars, and up to half of them died along the way.
“During the arrests, the soldiers shouted: ‘Are you dead? Take them out!’ retired irrigation expert Nouri Emirvaliyev, who was 10 when deported, told Al Jazeera in 2018, while reminiscing about his family’s two-month trip to Soviet Uzbekistan.
The 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 loved ones.
In post-Soviet Ukraine, Tatars faced discrimination and were virtually excluded from government and police jobs.
However, they sided with Kyiv during the 2014 annexation.
Tatar militants used smartphone apps to instantly notify the wider community of the movement of Russian troops and armored vehicles, and blocked them from entering their neighborhoods.
The Kremlin responded with a campaign of intimidation, kidnappings and pressure.
Several Tatar men disappeared and neighbors saw some of them being forced into unmarked cars or cans by burly men.
Their families have lost hope.
“Nothing is going to help him, he’s gone,” Elmira Zinetdinova, whose son Seyran disappeared on his way home in 2014, told Al Jazeera at the time.
She died of cancer in 2017 – without having seen him for those three years.
In recent years, the Kremlin has also tried to reshape, ban or suppress the cultural identity of the Tatars by reducing teaching in Tatar in public schools, razing or reconstructing their historical sites.