The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: The Case of Emir-Usein Kuku
The Crimean Tatars are “a Muslim ethnic minority indigenous to the Crimean Peninsula.” They have been among the most vocal critics of the Russian occupation of Crimea, and as a result, the Russian authorities have “relentlessly persecuted” them.
This has included harassment, intimidation, threats, intrusive and unlawful searches, physical attacks, and enforced disappearances. Russian authorities have also banned Tatar media and organizations that criticized the occupation, including the Mejlis, the Tatar’s self-governing body. Crimean Tatars are also frequently subjected to baseless criminal charges resulting in arbitrary detention – usually separatism, for criticizing Russia’s actions in Crimea; extremism, for political activity; or terrorism, for associating with the religious/political organization Hizb ut-Tahrir al Islami (Hizb ut-Tahrir).
Emir-Usein Kuku, for example, is a Tatar human rights activist and Chair of the Crimean Contact Group, which monitors human rights violations, provides legal assistance, and reports politically motivated enforced disappearances. On the morning of February 11, 2016, investigators and armed officials smashed down the front door of his home, conducted a five-hour search, and arrested him. He was charged with participating in a terrorist organization (Criminal Code Article 205.5(2)) and preparing for the violent seizure of power (Article 278) due to his alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir, and has been detained ever since.
Kuku denies any involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. However, even if he were involved with the group, the charges against him fail to allege any criminal action beyond mere association. As Memorial Human Right Center (HRC) has explained, Kuku is “not charged with preparing any terrorist act or voicing terrorist threats: just finding and convincing new supporters, holding meetings with [the] reading and discussing [of Hizb ut-Tahrir] literature, and discussing the international situation.” Nor is Kuku accused of taking any specific actions in order to violently seize power (such as collecting weapons). When an FSB operative was asked in court what preparations Kuku had made to seize power, the operative simply replied that, once Hizb ut-Tahrir has convinced 50% of the population to follow it, it will immediately seize power.
Kuku’s detention and prosecution are clearly related to his human rights work. In July 2018, four UN Special Procedures expressed “[s]erious concern . . . over the ongoing detention of Mr. Kuku and the charges he is facing for reasons seemingly linked to his peaceful and legitimate work in defense of human rights.” They also expressed concern about “the use of counter-terrorism legislation to criminalize Mr. Kuku’s work in defense of human rights in Crimea.” The Director of Amnesty International Ukraine described Kuku as “a brave human rights defender who has already spent three years in prison for standing up for the rights of Crimean Tatars.” The US State Department has recognized Kuku as a political prisoner and demanded his release. Amnesty International has also designated Kuku as a prisoner of conscience.