A crimean tatar faces 20 years in prison for his ethnicity and religious beliefs: the case of Vadim Bektemirov
Until 2020, Vadim Bektemirov led a quiet life in his native Crimea. He was a family man, a father of two young daughters, and a loving husband to his wife who was expecting their third child. He made his living as a translator, though his dream was to become an Imam.
In July of 2020, his life was brutally turned upside down when Russian security officials raided his house. He was arrested and charged under Part 2, Art. 205.5 of the Criminal Code of Russia —participating in a terrorist organization. He remains in illegal captivity to this day. Following the sudden arrest of his son, Vadim’s father suffered a heart attack and died. Vadim was not allowed to attend his father’s funeral and was denied the opportunity to say goodbye. Vadim has not been allowed to welcome his new baby boy or support his wife through her pregnancy and postpartum recovery. Rather, he is languishing in prison, and his family deprived of its breadwinner.
What was the crime committed by Vadim? At his first court hearing on May 26, 2021, Vadim Bektemirov stated: “I just followed my religion. This is a continuation of the genocide that began under Stalin. These are repressions against my people. I am facing charges only because I am a Muslim and a Crimean Tatar.” The Memorial Center which documents political prosecutions in Russia agrees with his assessment.
In 2014, Russia invaded and illegally annexed Crimea. Crimean Tatars, an ethnic group indigenous to the region were vocal in their opposition to the peninsula’s annexation and as a result, have faced Kremlin repression. Putin’s government views Crimean Tatars as a political threat because of their opposition to his aggressions in Ukraine, as well as their tightly-knit and well-organized communities. In fact, Putin has been so threatened by this group that the Russian government targeted their executive-representative body, the Mejlis, declaring it an extremist organization and banning it in 2016.
Recent Russian criminal cases against the Crimean Tatars are mainly based on their affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), an international Islamist party which the Kremlin designated a terrorist organization in 2003. Yet, HT’s members in Russia have never promoted violence or organized terrorist acts. Nevertheless, Russian security forces regularly raid the Crimean Tatars’ homes, interrogate and torture them, and place them in detention, claiming to be defending against the supposed threat of HT. Furthermore, those community members who dare to come out and support neighbors during a raid are frequently detained by the police.
In 2013, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation ruled that the government was no longer required to prove that someone accused of terrorism was plotting or committing terrorist acts for that person to be found guilty of the crime. As a result, the mere joining HT or participating in its activities is now sufficient for convicting a person of terrorism. The simplification of the investigation process has allowed Russian security forces to falsify the statistics, claiming an artificially inflated rate of terrorist plot prevention and misleadingly demonstrating high performance to their superiors.
According to the Memorial Center, as of June 15, 2021, 326 people have faced persecution for their affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Over 210 of them have been incarcerated, serving sentences of at least ten years.
The evidence of Bektemirov’s participation in terrorist activities is based on the testimony of two anonymous witnesses who claim that from 2015 to 2018 Bektemirov took them to secret HT meetings in Simferopol. According to their testimony, Bektemirov discussed the need to follow the HT’s ideas, attract new supporters to the organization, and publicize the facts of oppression of Muslims in Crimea. The case file also mentions a video recording in which Bektemirov allegedly defended the activities of HT “in front of other people present in the room.” Another piece of supposed evidence of Bektemirov’s guilt, according to the investigation, is the Islamist literature seized from his house during the raid. Finally, they cite as evidence the fact that Bektemirov constantly supported his coreligionists, attended their trials, helped those imprisoned, and advocated for the Crimean Tatars’ rights.
Why does the Memorial Human Right Center consider Vadim Bektemirov a political prisoner?
1. Bektemirov is facing charges without corpus delicti.
The “evidence” of his crime includes meetings of other HT followers, discussion of religious topics, and reading Islamic literature. These actions are absolutely legal in Russia. Indeed, Freedom of expression, conscience, and assembly are guaranteed by the Russian Constitution.
2. Bektemirov’s charges violate international law.
According to Amnesty International, post-annexation Crimea constitutes an occupied territory in international humanitarian law. In this situation, therefore, Russia has no right, under any circumstances, to eliminate the previously existing system of government and its criminal legislation. Under Ukrainian law, Hizb ut-Tahrir is a legal organization. Therefore, the persecution of HT’s members in Crimea is inherently illegal. The Memorial Human Rights Center demands Vadim Bektemirov’s immediate release and the complete termination of all criminal prosecution against Crimean Tatars and members of Hizb ut-Tahrir.