Putilovka, Crimea – The search warrant accused Muslyadin Muslyadinov of killing a Ukrainian riot police officer, although the dozen armed masked men who surrounded his modest whitewashed house in this mountain village in southern Crimea were sent by Russian authorities.
They found the full-bearded, gray-haired, 54-year-old in a barn milking cows, but did not arrest him for the murder allegedly committed in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, during anti-Russian protests early this year. Instead, they rudely ordered Muslyadinov to give up “banned literature, arms and drugs”, and spent almost five hours in his living room to painstakingly list and confiscate more than a hundred books on Muslim theology, history and law, he said.
“The books were good, a lot of knowledge on Islam. I wish I had time to have read them all,” Muslyadinov, patriarchal and portly, says over a cup of coffee describing the mid-August search. Wiping off sweat from his face, sunburnt by the daily grazing of almost two dozen cows and calves, he adds, “They even took away Islam for Children.”
Every morning, Muslyadinov drives the cows by the ruins of a 16th-century mosque, where every Friday afternoon he leads a prayer as the head of a tiny congregation of Crimean Tatars, a Turkic-speaking, Muslim ethnicity that have lived here for hundreds of years, and now account for some 12 percent of Crimea’s population of two million.
Unlike Crimea’s ethnic Russian majority, most of the Tatars resisted Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula in March. They fielded patrols to prevent Russian soldiers, APCs, pro-Russian paramilitary squads and Cossacks from entering their villages, and even used an Android app to turn their smartphones into walkie-talkies that provided instant communication with hundreds of people.
Moscow responded by exiling community leaders, banning rallies, closing down Tatar media outlets and paralysing the work of the Mejlis, an informal Tatar parliament. At least 15 Tatars and pro-Ukrainian activists were kidnapped or went missing, one of them found dead with traces of torture, another allegedly hanged himself in a desolate barn.
A Crimean Tatar couple listen to a Muslim cleric during a wedding at the Great Khan mosque [Denis Sinyakov/Al Jazeera]
Hundreds of Muslims were detained, interrogated, fined for blocking highways during protest rallies. There were attempts to set two mosques on fire, several more were vandalised. Dozens of households, mosques, religious and secular schools have been searched by Russian law enforcement officers in the months after the takeover, according to human rights groups and witnesses.
“Since Ukraine’s independence, the Muslim community developed freely, without any restrictions,” says Enver Kadyrov, a human rights advocate who fled Crimea in May for the western Ukrainian city of Chernovtsy fearing persecution. “Now, under occupation, this free development is, obviously, the reason for pressure on Crimean Muslims.”
Many Muslims complained that during the searches the officers forced their way in, broke doors and furniture, harassed and humiliated them in front of their wives and children, according to more than a dozen people interviewed by Al Jazeera. Most of the interviewees refused to provide their names fearing further harassment and persecution.
“It’s the Russian way of saying ‘welcome’,” said one of the interviewees, a burly, bearded shop owner and activist of Hizbut-Tahrir, an Islamist group that strives to peacefully restore the caliphate, a Muslim state ruled by Islamic law.
The searches were “invasive and in some cases unwarranted” and were conducted to look for “drugs, weapons, and prohibited literature”, and involved local police, FSB, Russia’s main KGB successor agency, and dozens of unidentified armed, masked men, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, an international rights watchdog, released in mid-November.
Crimea’s Moscow-appointed head, Sergei Aksyonov, called the report “propaganda” that lacked facts that could be checked and followed up. “In my opinion, human rights organisations should defend the rights of a majority,” he told the Gazeta.ru website. “But we, unfortunately, don’t see it.”
Many Muslims have left the peninsula – mostly for mainland Ukraine and Turkey. Ankara has repeatedly said it was ready to receive and accommodate “any” number of Crimean Tatars, who share linguistic ties with Turks and can rely on a powerful local community of Tatars. The exact number of refugees, however, is not available.
The abuses, searches and new restrictions evoked memories of the most tragic event in Crimean Tatars’ history. In 1944, all of them – more than 190,000 – were deported to Central Asia for alleged collaboration with Nazi Germans during World War II. Up to a half died of hardship and starvation, those who tried to return were sentenced to 20 years in jail, and survivors were for decades branded as traitors.
They were allowed to return to Crimea only in the late 1980s, but have never been compensated for their houses, property, and land that were seized by ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. Every year on May 18, the day the deportation began, they hold rallies that draw tens of thousands.
|Sergei Aksyonov, head of the pro-Russian government of Crimea, receives a symbolic loaf of bread from the staffers of a bread factory in Simferopol that was nationalised by authorities in early November [Denis Sinyakov/Al Jazeera]
But this year, the new, Kremlin-appointed government banned the rally, a symbol the Tatars see as the new order. “They are not letting us cry on May 18 any more,” said an elderly Tatar woman who refused to provide her name.
One of Muslyadinov’s neighbours – an elderly man who survived the deportation – witnessed the search at his house and collapsed with a heart attack while trying to run away. “He thought it started again, that ‘they came to deport me,'” Muslyadinov says.
Among the books, brochures and DVDs confiscated from him, some were on the doctrines and policies of Hizbut-Tahrir. Muslyadinov insists he is not a member, although it was Hizbut-Tahrir activists who persuaded him to become an observant Muslim.
The group has been banned in many countries, including Russia. In Ukraine, it operated without restrictions, enlisting thousands of Tatars and some ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, organising festivities on Muslim holidays and rallying to protest western policies in the Middle East.
Some Muslim clerics affiliated with the government-run mosques and schools praised the crackdown on the group. “I disapprove of Hizbut-Tahrir and their teachings,” said Imam Sabri of the historic mosque in the palace of khans in Bakhchisarai, the former capital of the Crimean Tatar state that was part of the Mongol empire and Ottoman Turkey before imperial Russia took over the peninsula in 1778.
Russian officials say that membership in the group is a “gateway drug” that prompts many to join jihadist groups, and eventually take up arms. Some Crimean Tatars have joined Islamist forces fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime – which still enjoys Kremlin backing – and that several of them have reportedly been killed.
But many Crimean Muslims fear the worst is yet to come. They say as of January 1, 2015 – after the peninsula finally merges with Russia legally and administratively – they may face much bigger perils that have already happened to Muslims in Russia’s most restive region.
“We don’t want things to go wrong the way they did in [North] Caucasus,” says a Hizbut-Tahrir activist who works at a small café in Bakhchisarai.
|Portraits of kidnapped Seiran Zinedinov are pictured in Simferopol, Crimea. At least seven people have been kidnapped or gone missing after Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March [Denis Sinyakov/Al Jazeera]
North Caucasus, a multi-ethnic, predominantly Muslim mountainous region between the Caspian and Black Seas, has for two decades been a hotbed of Islamist insurgency that has turned into what the International Crisis Group, a conflict-monitoring organisation, dubbed “Europe’s most active armed conflict.”
After 1994, two separatist wars in Chechnya killed tens of thousands and morphed into an ongoing confrontation between radical Islamists, corrupt local clans, and law enforcement agencies in neighbouring Dagestan and other Caucasus provinces. Dozens of attacks conducted by Chechen separatists, including suicide bombers, horrified average Russians fuelling xenophobia and anti-Muslim hysteria.
As part of a spiralling crackdown, Muslims in the Caucasus suspected of ties to Islamists or “suspicious” mosques face arbitrary detentions, torture, extrajudicial killings and post-mortal accusations of membership in rebel groups, according to human rights groups and media reports.
For example, in February 2010, Russian law enforcement officers killed four Chechen teenagers who were picking wild garlic in a mountain forest – but their deaths were reported as a successful “liquidation” of Islamic fighters.
Some Tatar leaders are afraid such practises will be transplanted to Crimea.
“We have very serious concerns,” says Nariman Dzhelyalov, deputy chairman of the Mejlis, an informal Tatar parliament that serves as a liaison of Crimean Tatars’ ties with Ukrainian authorities and foreign governments. “Special services utilise tried-and-tested methods and don’t want to show any flexibility.”
Meanwhile, Russian media, officials and leaders claim that Ukraine has formed Islamist squads to attack Crimea – and that jihadists were allegedly going to do that to prevent the Russian takeover.
In early October, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a Russian daily, quoted several unnamed Russian security officials as saying Ukrainian authorities seek to “organise unrest in Crimea together with Islamic radicals”.
In mid-November, during President Vladimir Putin’s meeting with activists of the United Civil Front, a Kremlin-backed movement of his supporters, a Russian film-maker told him about thousands of Crimean Tatar jihadists who were allegedly going to organise a “bloodbath” on the peninsula ahead of the Russian annexation.
“When 4,000 armed fanatics, Tatars, returned from Syria, a serious bloodbath was being planned,” Yuri Kara said during the meeting, according to the transcript of the November 20 discussion posted on Kremlin’s website. “And I witnessed that absolutely brilliant military operation that was conducted.”
Putin apparently wasn’t impressed by the sudden revelation. “Why are you telling everyone about all this?” Putin interrupted Kara, according to the transcript. “It is a secret.”