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Crimean Tatar Leader: Ban on Representative Body Act of 'Updated Soviet Union'

FILE - Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev is seen during an interview in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 15, 2014.

The international community is criticizing Moscow for the decision by the Supreme Court in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014, to ban the Mejlis, the executive representative body of the Crimean Tatars, as an “extremist organization.” In rendering its decision Tuesday, the court was following the lead of Russia’s Justice Ministry, which last week suspended the Mejlis for what it called “extremist activities.”

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said banning the Crimean Tatar Mejlis “removes what little representation and recourse that the Tatars have left under Russian occupation.” The Crimean Tatars, he said, face oppression, repression, and discrimination, adding that nearly 10,000 of them “have been forced to flee their homeland and those who remain have …been subjected to abuses, beatings, arbitrary detentions.”

European officials also denounced the Russian move against the Mejlis.

Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev, takes part in the Ukrainian Cabinet session in Kiev, Ukraine, Monday, Nov. 23, 2015.
Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev, takes part in the Ukrainian Cabinet session in Kiev, Ukraine, Monday, Nov. 23, 2015.

VOA’s Russian Service discussed these developments with the former head of the Mejlis, Mustafa Dzhemilev. Currently based in Kyiv, he is a member of Ukraine’s parliament and heads the Ukrainian president’s commission for the Crimean Tatar people.

Q (VOA): Did the Russian court decision come as a surprise to you?

A (Dzhemilev): It was no surprise. We understand that we are still dealing with an updated Soviet Union. We've already gone through this: the Crimean Tatar national movement was always banned [during the Soviet period]. We were called "agents of the West," "anti-Soviet," "slanderers." We were persecuted, imprisoned. But it all ended up with the national movement being able to return its people to their homeland, and the Soviet Union collapsed.

Q: What will the Mejlis do now?

A: The Mejlis will now go into emergency mode. Its center will be in Kyiv. All of the Mejlis members who were refused entry into Crimea will be here. There are eight such people. But those members of the Mejlis who are in Crimea, of course, will not be allowed to assemble [there], and it will not be possible to hold meetings by video link, as before. Still, we will find ways to ensure that decisions are approved by all members of the Mejlis … In addition, a council will meet here that will include delegates of the Kurultai [the Crimean Tatars’ elected representative council, which chooses the Mejlis members-ED] who ended up outside Crimea, and members of the Mejlis. And I will also be part of this. And we will promptly take decisions on everything concerning Crimea – for the de-occupation of Crimea.

Q: And what about trying to convene the Kurultai?

A: That’s impossible because if, let’s say, the Kurultai is held in Kyiv, the Kurultai delegates in Crimea either will not be allowed to come, or if they find some way to leave, they might not be allowed back … Therefore, we will not risk that. And, of course, it will be impossible to hold [such meetings] in the occupied territory. The occupation authorities are trying to create their own domesticated Mejlis but have failed to do so. The tried to convene the Kurultai delegates, working personally with every delegate. That also did not work. Now they have switched to the traditional method – repression. We expect that the repression will expand.

Q: How many of your activists are imprisoned?

A: Twelve people are now in custody. Some on religious grounds – no specific charges, but they were found with literature which, from the point of view of the authorities, is called extremist. The second group of prisoners are those accused of involvement in the events of early 2014, even before the so-called "accession" of Crimea to Russia. They are accused of organizing riots, [using] anti-Russian slogans. These are absurd accusations ... And the third point is the events of May 3, 2104, when people broke through the so-called "border" between Crimea and mainland Ukraine to meet me. They are accused of having pushed some of the riot police – that is, the organization of mass riots. In total, to date – we have already stopped counting how many of searches have been carried out -- but more than 250, probably, and more than 95 percent of those were at the homes, schools and mosques of the Crimean Tatars.

Q: How is Ukraine’s leadership reacting to the ban?

A: The attitude towards the Crimean Tatars is quite different than it was in Crimea under the previous [Ukrainian] government, under [former president Viktor] Yanukovych. Under Yanukovych, all the services of the Crimea -- first and foremost, the security service, the bodies of the prosecutor's office - worked against the Mejlis. They adhered to the idea imposed on them that we are the main separatists, that we pose a threat to Ukraine. Now, of course, everything has changed radically. After the ban on the Mejlis, after the [Russian] Justice Ministry listed the Majlis as an "extremist organization," the Verkhovna Rada [Ukraine’s parliament] adopted an appeal, a statement calling on all parliaments to condemn it. At Ukraine’s initiative, the United Nations Security Council was supposed to hold a session on April 29 specifically on the Mejlis ban - but, as I understand it, this meeting is postponed indefinitely at the initiative of China. It has not been canceled, however: it will be held. The U.N., the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, Amnesty International, many international organizations that monitor human rights, have made statements on this matter, because the Mejlis is not a club of like-minded people, it is a structure elected by the people. If you ban the Mejlis, subject to this action is not only the 33 members of the Mejlis, who are chosen by the Kurultai, but the whole system of [Crimean Tatar] self-government, i.e. local councils, consisting of around 2,500 people. In addition, because the people elected these "extremists," the entire Crimean Tatar people fall under this [label]. In such a situation, of course, it would be very strange for the international community to show indifference. Thank God, that has not happened yet.

Q: Beyond expressions of concern, how can the international community protect the Crimean Tatars?

A: It is Impossible to protect the rights of the Crimean Tatars before the liberation of Crimea from the occupiers. Therefore, all efforts should be made to liberate it. It is possible, of course, through the efforts of various international organizations, the involvement of diplomats, to release someone who has been arrested. Maybe you can limit the number of abducted and tortured people, but Crimea cannot be an island of democracy in a state that has been totalitarian in recent years. Thus, the only way is the liberation of Crimea from the occupiers. But we don't see a military option for liberation; therefore, we say that the main method is the strengthening of economic sanctions. Those sanctions should be painful enough to force Russia to behave internationally in a humane way, not in a gangster-like fashion, as it does now.