Russia demands loyalty or silence, say Crimea's hounded Tatars

Bakhchysaray (AFP) - Crimean Tartar activist Ilmi Umerov walks slowly and has difficulty controlling his left arm but his voice is strong and his eyes are piercing as he reiterates his rejection of Moscow's rule in the peninsula, an opinion for which he faces trial.

The deputy head of the Mejlis -- the Crimean Tatars' elected assembly -- was on September 7 released from three weeks' involuntary detention in a psychiatric hospital in Simferopol, on the Black Sea.

His incarceration for tests of his "mental capacity" followed his televised insistence that Crimea should be returned to Ukraine, prompting Russia to charge him with calling for Russia's borders to be changed.

His detention led to widespread condemnation from international rights groups, not least because Umerov, 59, suffers from Parkinson's disease and high blood pressure and is diabetic.

"Russia is striving for loyalty," Umerov told AFP in the garden of his house in Bakhchysaray, the main town in the district of the same name of which he was the longtime leader until he resigned when Crimea fell under Moscow's control in 2014.

Failing that, "it would be entirely enough for them if the Crimean Tatars fell silent," he added.

Ruled entirely sane by doctors in the psychiatric hospital, Umerov will now go on trial and faces up to five years in jail.

"The time has come when, for a thought, for an opinion, they will put people on trial and hand them real sentences," Umerov said.

Crimea's Muslim Tatars number some 300,000 -- around 14 percent of the peninsula's population -- although Umerov estimates some 30,000 to 40,000 have left since Russia's annexation.

- TV channel silenced -

Activists say several hundred others have had their homes searched or been detained.

The Tartar ATR television channel has been shut down, while the Mejlis was banned as "extremist" and is now largely a symbolic entity.

Umerov believes the worldwide outcry over his detention, which included statements from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the US State Department, prompted his clean bill of mental health.

In the Soviet era, dissidents were frequently incarcerated in psychiatric institutions in order to discredit them, and comparisons have been drawn between that practice and Umerov's case.

"The special services, the FSB that is, did not dare to carry out some kind of order," he said, referring to Russia's feared security service.

"So the psychiatric testing turned out to be objective. They declared me mentally healthy."

Umerov believes that although his ill-health might spare him a prison term, "all the same I will be considered a convict."

- History of repression -

The Tatars have lived through a long history of repression dating back to Catherine the Great in the 18th century.

In 1944 Stalin deemed the entire population "traitors" and deported them from Crimea, mostly to Central Asia.

They were only able to return in the late 1980s under Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms.

According to community leader and former teacher Zair Smedlya, discrimination and police harassment against Tartars continued after Ukraine became independent in 1991.

Now, he said, "90 percent of law enforcement" officers working under Russian rule were also doing so when the peninsula was governed by Kiev.

The difference is that then, they "were afraid of publicity, they were afraid to violate the law so blatantly and unceremoniously," he said.

"In a way (the Ukrainians) treated us more tolerantly," agreed 77-year-old Ramzi, who was deported from Crimea at the age of five.

- 'You must shut up' -

While some Crimean Tatars appear to have chosen the path of loyalty, even to the extent of joining Putin's United Russia party, others have stood firm.

When businessman Mustafa Osmanov tried to stop his son being detained, he recalls officials agreeing to help, but telling him: "you must shut up."

"I said, 'maybe you'll say I should kiss Putin's arse!'" he said with a laugh.

Osmanov's son was convicted of assaulting a police officer at a meeting with Crimean Tartar figurehead leader Mustafa Dzhemilev -- now barred from the peninsula -- and is now serving a suspended one-year jail sentence.

Crimean Tatars should not "turn away and be silent about open repressions," said Nariman Dzhelyal, the first deputy leader of the Mejlis.

Those who switch sides can expect "moral condemnation," he said.

But for local United Russia politician Andrei Kozenko, who won a seat in Russia's parliament in last month's polls, such Crimean Tartars are guilty of failing to "reshape their consciousness."

He accused members of the Mejlis of "practically organising a genocide of their own people" with their attempts to block roads as well as water and electricity supplies to the peninsula.

In Bakhchysaray's Orta Jami Juma mosque, the district's chief imam, Ramazan Asanov, picks his words carefully, noting that those who attended that morning's prayers included a number of government officials.

Some worshippers "have a concrete negative position about Russians, about Russia, about the government, but what use is that to us?" he asked.

Under Russia, "I can say that interaction between us and the government has improved, that helps us in many areas," he added.

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