Why We’re All Crimean Tatars

Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokespersona Mariana Betsa speaks in support of the Crimean Tatar community after the Russian Federation’s ban of the Mejlis on September 29, 2016.

I am not a Crimean Tatar. But after the illegal occupation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and full-scale Russian aggression in Donbas, which has been waged in grave breach of international law, we all are Crimean Tatars.

The situation in Crimea has reached a crossroads. On September 29, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation upheld a decision that banned the representative body of the Crimean Tatar People, the Mejlis, and labeled it an extremist organization. This decision puts the Mejlis’s thousands of democratically-elected leaders at risk for continued persecution by the occupying authorities in Crimea and rips Crimean Tatars of their voice.

But this decision is not just a ban on a democratic organization; it is a ban on Crimea’s indigenous people. How the international community responds to this decision will determine the future of the Crimean Tatars and their homeland.

This is just one story in the decades-long systematic repression of Tatars, the most recent chapter of which began when the Russian Federation illegally occupied the Crimean peninsula, an integral part of sovereign Ukraine, in March 2014.

Since then, Crimean Tatars have been denied the freedoms that are the basis of all democratic societies. Their media outlets, including TV station ATR, have been intimidated and raided by masked men, and eventually muzzled by the occupying authorities. Individuals that speak out against the de facto Russian authorities risk abduction, torture, and murder. Rather than put their lives in danger, thousands of Crimean Tatars have fled their homeland to escape this persecution. Others have been exiled; two leaders of the Mejlis, Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov, were banned from re-entering Crimea.

This summer, when Deputy Chairman of the Mejlis Ilmi Umerov said that “Russia must be forced to leave Crimea and Donbas,” he was forcibly sent to the Simferopol Psychiatric Hospital, where he spent three weeks without critical medications for diabetes and heart disease. This type of “punitive psychiatry” was a favorite tactic of the Soviet regime in its fight against its citizens, and its use in Crimea confirms Russia’s return to Stalinist methods of repression. Thanks to pressure from the international community, Mr. Umerov was released, but he still faces criminal charges for “calling to violate the territorial integrity of Russia.”

Despite repeated calls by the international community for the occupying forces in Crimea to end this intimidation of Tatar activists, it continues to occur daily. The forced disappearance of Ervin Ibragimov is one of the latest examples of Russian aggression against Crimean Tatars. Ervin is a 30-year-old former member of the Bakhchysarai Regional Council and a member of the Executive Committee of the World Congress of Crimean Tatars, an organization that advocates for Tatar rights in the wake of the 2014 annexation of their homeland. On May 24, CCTV footage captured a group of men intimidating Ervin and forcing him into a car. He has not been heard from since, and his family’s claims for police and the occupying authorities to investigate his disappearance have gone unanswered.

Ervin’s disappearance is not an isolated incident. His story is repeated every day in occupied Crimea. Like Ervin’s, these stories also lack endings. And they will only grow more numerous thanks to the recent court decision, which provides the occupying authorities the legal basis to persecute Crimean Tatars at will.

This persecution is why I chose to stand by the Crimean Tatar community on the Maidan as they protested the Russian court’s impending decision, and why the international community must act. Together, we must pressure Russia not only to investigate disappearances, but to allow human rights monitoring groups unrestricted access to the peninsula so we can protect Crimean activists and bring to justice those that threaten them.

The banning of the Mejlis is another deplorable step in the Russian Federation’s continued repression of the Crimean people. How we act now, and the steps that we take to defend our fellow Ukrainians — our fellow human beings — will be judged by history.

I am not a Crimean Tatar, but today, we all are Crimean Tatars.