Mustafa Dzhemilev: “For political prisoners, things are worse now than during the Soviet Union”

Mustafa Dzhemilev: “For political prisoners, things are worse now than during the Soviet Union”

Mustafa Dzhemilev, photographed in his office in Kiev, on 22 October 2018.

(Oleksandr Ratushniak)

Ukrainian human rights activist Mustafa Dzhemilev is widely considered the leader of the Crimean Tatar National Movement. Born on 13 November 1943 in Crimea, less than a year later between 18-20 May 1944, the Soviet regime violently deported the entire population of close to 200,000 Crimean Tatars from their homeland to remote areas across the USSR. Dzhemilev since dedicated his life to fighting for the recognition of the rights of Crimean Tatars to return to their homeland, to the restoration of Crimean autonomy based on the right of the Crimean Tatars to self-determination, and the general campaigning for human rights in the former Soviet Union; for his work, he was imprisoned in gulags and exiled six times.

In 1989, at the age of 45, Dzhemilev was able to return to his home in Crimea for the first time since he was forcibly expelled. In post-Soviet Ukraine, Dzhemilev served as a deputy in the Ukrainian parliament and until recently, he was the chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People [the single highest executive-representative body of the Crimean Tatars]. Due to his outspoken condemnation of the Russian occupation of Crimea, in 2014 at the age of 71, Dzhemilev was once again banned from entering his homeland. From his base in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, he spoke to Equal Times about his life’s work, the similarities between the fight for human rights during the Soviet era and today, as well as the impact that Russia’s annexation of Crimea has had on the Crimean Tatars’ struggle for self-determination.

In 1975, you went on one of the longest hunger-strikes in history – 303 days – to protest your imprisonment by the Soviet authorities for your activism. This year, the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov went on a hunger strike for 145 days after his arrest by Russian authorities and to call for the release of 65 Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia. Do you think that hunger strikes are still an effective form of political protest?

When a man declares a political hunger strike, he doesn’t rely on his demands being satisfied. For example, Sentsov understands that his demand to free all the Ukrainian political prisoners won’t happen soon, yet he did it to attract the attention of the global community. And in this, he reached his goal [Editor’s note: on 25 October 2018, Sentsov was awarded the prestigious European Parliament Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought].

Do you think there is any chance that Russian President Vladimir Putin will free Sentsov?

A lot depends on the current state of affairs. The liberation of Ahtem Ciygoz and Ilmi Umerov [Editor’s note: the deputy chairpersons of the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar self-governing body that has been outlawed by Russian authorities since 2014] is quite different. [Turkish Prime Minister Recep] Erdoğan has for sure played a big role; since we have a big diaspora of Crimean Tatars in Turkey, they listen to us. And since Putin didn’t want to spoil relations with Turkey, we succeeded in freeing the activists.

Putin demanded two Russian terrorists [Editor’s note: Dzhemilev’s term for Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, officers] to be freed in return. So, when we have asked about Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko [a Ukrainian trade union activist, anti-facist activist and ecologist] another time, Erdoğan said: “Of course, we’ll try. But you know Putin doesn’t give anything for free.”

My opinion is that we have to be rational when demanding for the release of political prisoners. After liberating two people with the help of Erdoğan, four people were arrested just a week later. The Russians always need a reserve of people to exchange. If you liberate Sentsov and the others, the Russians will just arrest more people, maybe 10 times more. And we exchange completely innocent people, patriots of their countries, that haven’t committed any crime, for bloody murderers that were captured by other countries.

On 13 September 2018, Fiona Frazer (head of the UN Human Rights Mission to Ukraine) declared that 86 per cent of all raids and searches of homes in Crimea were conducted against Crimean Tatars. She also condemned the continuation of human rights abuses in the occupied peninsula and the failure of such cases to be properly investigated. What is your evaluation of the human rights situation in Crimea, particularly for the Crimean Tatars?

We often make parallels between today’s occupation regime and the Soviet power in Crimea. There are differences, of course, but if you look at an overall picture, in my mind things are worse now than during the Soviet times in relation to human rights. Things are more lawless now, and the torture is becoming more intense. During the Soviet Union, the authorities were afraid of bad publicity. But now they’ve got nothing to lose. The Russian government spends millions on propaganda.

Just expressing your point of view can lead to persecution. The FSB tracks all digital networks and all publications. If you like a post or or do something that the Russian authorities consider ‘wrong’ you can get fined or arrested. Your home can be searched. And about 95 per cent of searches are performed against Crimean Tatars, even though Tatars only make up 13 per cent of the population in the Crimean Peninsula. Three-fourths of those arrested are Crimean Tatars, too. We are defending our land, since we are natives there. But others are also arrested, like Sentsov, for instance.

Do you think this repression will force Crimean Tatars to leave their homeland once again?

It is the tragedy, since we have been fighting for more than half a century to come back to our homeland, and many people have returned. But now we are under a regime that is forcing us to leave once again. I tell people not to leave now since we have fought for so long to return. Some people say to me: “It is well and good for you to sit there in the free Ukraine and to tell us to stand up. But try to live here. Can you guarantee my son won’t be kidnapped and killed tomorrow?” They are right to say this, so it is the choice for every Tatar to make for themselves.

What tools are you using these days to further the Crimean Tatar cause?

We are insisting on sanctions. Not only political or economic ones, but also the isolation of Russia. Not enough is being done, but I must say, if after thepart-occupation of Georgia in 2008 the global community had reacted like it did to the occupation of Ukraine, maybe we wouldn’t be dealing with this situation today. The occupation of Crimea must have a high price.

What is your prognosis on the de-occupation of Crimea?

We shouldn’t expect this question to be resolved quickly. It could take at least five or six years. It’s very hard to forecast, because a regime of that kind could collapse at any moment. Before its collapse, the Soviet Union behaved as if it was going to stay in power for centuries.

After Russian forces fired on and seized three Ukrainian boats and 24 sailors last month, the Ukraine introduced martial law. Do you think this was the right decision?
In the Verkhovna Rada [Ukrainian parliament] I voted in favour of this decision, since, according to the conclusion of the National Security Council and the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, further ground movement of Russian troops through the territory of Ukraine is not excluded. But martial law alone is not enough, because the inequality of forces is too great. It will require urgent assistance, including military, from allied and friendly countries.