Russia’s persecution of Crimean Tatars

By: Lane Johansen

The recent arrest of Nariman Dzhelyalov (which I wrote about in this article) is just the latest example of Russia’s long history of political and religious persecution of the Crimean Tatar people. 

Crimean Tatars are a Turkic ethnic group that emerged as a nation in the 15th century within the Crimean Khanate. They represented the dominant ethnic group in Crimea until 1944, when nearly 200,000 Crimean Tatars were forcibly deported to Central Asia, primarily Uzbekistan. When they were permitted to return to Crimea in 1989, Crimean Tatars represented only about 10% of the population.  Crimean Tatars currently comprise 12-13% of the population in Crimea and are predominately Sunni Muslim.

In 1991, Crimea was granted the status of an autonomous republic within Ukraine governed by the Council of Ministers. The Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People was also founded in 1991 to act as a representative body of the Crimean Tatars to the Ukrainian central government. 

In March 2014, the Crimean Peninsula was illegally annexed by Russia after a Crimea-wide referendum showed an alleged 97% support for integration with Russia. While ethnic Russians – who comprise about 58% of the population in Crimea – overwhelmingly supported joining Russia, Crimean Tatars wholly opposed integration and boycotted the referendum. 

Tensions between Crimean Tatars and Crimea’s new Russian-backed authorities emerged immediately following annexation of the Peninsula. On April 26th, 2016, the Crimea’s pro-Russian Supreme Court officially banned the Mejlis, declaring it to be an extremist organization. 

Extensive human rights abuses in occupied Crimea – particularly against Crimean Tatars – have been recorded since 2014, including arbitrary detentions, torture, and forced disappearances. Detained Crimean Tatars are usually charged with alleged membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir, a self-described nonviolent Islamist political party that is illegal in Russia but operates legally in Ukraine. The Kremlin regularly portrays Crimean Tatars as extremist and a threat to regional security. Moscow also refuses to recognize Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people, depriving Crimean Tatars of their right to education in their native language. 

At least 30,000 Crimean Tatars have fled Crimea since 2014. According to the Centre for Human Rights ZMINA, there are at least 105 political prisoners in occupied Crimea, and 80 of them are Crimean Tatars. Religious activity in Crimea is systemically regulated by Moscow, with frequent persecution of religious organizations not registered in accordance with Russian law. Human rights activists have recorded more than 300 violations of journalists’ rights since 2014, including physical attacks, threats, and criminal prosecutions. Between 2014 and 2018, 44 people were victims of forced disappearances, with six found dead and fifteen still unaccounted for.

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