Apr 24, 2020

Coronavirus: Crimean Tatars Forbidden to Wear Masks

As the coronavirus spreads in Russia-occupied Crimea, Crimean Tatar activists are being warned not to cover their faces by the Russian authorities in the name of counter-extremism, which conversely comes at a time when Russia has made it madatory to wear face masks in public. 

Below is an article from the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

A young woman who stood in silent protest against Russia’s barbaric ‘reconstruction’ of the 16th century Crimean Tatar Khan’s Palace in Bakhchysarai has become the latest Crimean Tatar to be ‘warned against extremism’ by Russian-controlled police officers.  In the middle of a pandemic, Russia can find nothing better to do than try to intimidate Crimean Tatar activists by warning against ‘offences’ that not one of them has committed.  The warnings have been issued to human rights activists, members of the Crimean Tatar national movement to civic journalists from the Crimean Solidarity initiative.

The most surreal aspect of such activities is surely the fact that, at a time of very real danger of catching Covid-19, when Crimeans are not allowed in public places without covering their face, the warnings contain a ban on wearing masks.  While it is stated that the masks must not be used “during protests”, the warnings have been issued to people who have either not taken part in any such ‘protests’, or only in single-person pickets which even according to Russian legislation, illegally applied in Crimea, are legal.  Any other peaceful protests have essentially been impossible since Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in early 2014.

The visitations, either from the prosecutor’s office, or from police officers, have been taking place since late in March 2020.  Mustafa Seydaliyev, one of the coordinators of Crimean Solidarity has been targeted twice: first on 27 March by somebody from the prosecutor’s office, then on 15 April from the police. The police arrived at his parents’ home, where he is formally registered, and questioned his mother.  Seydaliyev has since called the police and told them to leave his parents in peace.  If they want to speak with him or deliver such ‘warnings’, they should come to him, he is not in hiding.  Seydaliyev considers that these warnings and visitations are about putting pressure on Crimean Tatars. 

“We Crimean Tatars and Muslims have, over the last six years, confronted accusations of violating Russian Federation laws.  This is although we have never committed, nor do we plan to commit that which they are accusing our people and our families”.

So far five other Crimean Solidarity civic journalists: Nuri Abdurashitov; Kulamet Ibraimov; Aider Kadyrov; Emin Rustemov and Nariman Temirkaliyev have all received such ‘warnings’, as have Abdurashid Dzhepparov, founder of the Crimean Contact Group for Human Rights and Zair Smedlyaev, Head of the Central Election Commission of the Crimean Tatar Qurultay [national congress].  

It is no accident that such a large number of Crimean Solidarity activists and journalists have been targeted.  Crimean Solidarity arose in 2016 to help the mounting number of political prisoners and their families, and to ensure coverage of political trials, armed arrests and other forms of repression.  Its members began coming under attack at the beginning of 2017, but administrative arrests and fines proved powerless to break Crimean Tatar solidarity, and from October 2017, the Russian FSB turned to fabricated ‘terrorism’ charges.  It takes courage to continue doing what you know to be right when there is a real danger that you could end up in prison for up to 20 years, but thus far Russia has not succeeded in destroying the initiative.

If the ‘warnings’ issued to human rights activists are telling, so too is the fact that the police also appeared at the home of Elmaz Akimova who was  attacked in February 2018 for her totally peaceful and legal picket in protest at the destruction of the Khan’s Palace in Bakhchysarai.  At the time, Elmaz explained why she had gone to stand in silent protest.  “This was the day when my conscience would not allow me to do nothing any longer.  When I understood that if I don’t take action in defence of our Khan’s Place, I would no longer have the right to cross its threshold. A solitary picket was what I was able to do.  If it helped draw the attention of even one person to this appalling vandalism against the Khan’s Palace, then it was not in vain. What they are now doing to our main historical monument of architecture is a crime.  And we simply have no right to remain silent about this crime!  There will be no justification for such silence.”

Details of the destruction here: ‘Closed for Destruction’: Russia is digging up 16th Century Crimean Tatar Khan’s Palacev

Two years later, on 21 April 2020, the officer asked questions regarding who there is in her family; whether she has been outside Crimea and if so, where and why; as well as about where she works or studies.  There were no grounds for any visit, nor for the grilling.  Akimova says that the officer said that the warning was in connection with the plan to hold a March of Dignity on Crimea from mainland Ukraine (and postponed two weeks ago because of the pandemic.)  He also mentioned possible events linked with 18 May, the anniversary of the 1944 Deportation of the entire Crimean Tatar people. Within months of its invasion and annexation, Russia had banned all traditional remembrance events around the anniversary, and has continued to use repressive measures against people remembering the victims of a heinous crime, recognized in Ukraine as an act of genocide. Those wishing to do so are now being warned against ‘extremism’.


Photo by Crimean Solidarity