Russia evicts Crimean Tatars from assembly

Simferopol (AFP) - Russian authorities have ordered Crimean Tatars to leave their assembly building, in a move that the leader of the ethnic minority -- which opposed Russia's annexing of Crimea from Ukraine -- called a return to Soviet oppression.

Bailiffs told the Tatars' governing body, the Mejlis, that its members had until Friday to vacate their building in Simferopol, the regional capital of Russian-annexed Crimea, activists said.

A charity headed by the largely Muslim community's spiritual leader and a newspaper published by the assembly have also been issued an eviction notice, they said.

The authorities did not provide a clear explanation for the eviction order and Tatar activists said the move was politically motivated against an ethnic group that was firmly opposed to the Russian takeover of Ukraine.

Mustafa Dzhemilev, the hugely respected spiritual leader of Crimea's 300,000-strong Tatar community, said the Russian authorities wanted to shut down the assembly for good.

"The Crimean Tatar Mejlis and all Crimean Tatars do not support (Russian) occupation," Dzhemilev told AFP by phone from Kiev.

"The Russian authorities have concluded that it's impossible to come to an agreement with Tatars."

"This is a full-scale return to the Soviet Union," said Dzhemilev, who is also a lawmaker in Ukraine's parliament and was banned by Russia from returning to the peninsula earlier this year.

He said the minority's assembly would try to find a way to continue operating.

"The Mejlis is the last hope of the Crimean Tatars."

The eviction order came after police raided the assembly as well as the homes of several Tatar activists. The bailiffs postponed their deadline till Friday after the Tatars refused to leave the building earlier this week.

An assembly member, Ali Khamzin, said the raids and the eviction were aimed at silencing the Tatar community, which boycotted a March referendum during which a majority of Crimean residents chose to split from Ukraine and join Russia.

"We will continue our work," Khamzin told AFP.

After the controversial referendum, the Tatar assembly agreed to cooperate with Russian authorities but also said they would consider conducting their own plebiscite on broader autonomy.

Under Stalin, the Tatars, a Turkish-speaking Muslim group, were accused of collaborating with Nazi Germany and deported to Central Asia, where nearly half died from starvation and disease.

Tatars began returning to Crimea under Mikhail Gorbachev and became Ukrainian nationals after independence in 1991.

They have since experienced a cultural revival but still wrestle with disputes over land ownership and continuing exclusion.

The United Nations and the United States have denounced rights abuses against the minority since the peninsula's annexation by Russia.

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