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Crimean Tatar Leader to Appeal Harsh Sentence for 'Separatism'

  • Daniel Schearf

FILE - In this photo taken on Monday, Jan. 25, 2016, a Crimean Tatar leader, Ilmi Umerov, speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Simferopol, Crimea.

Crimean Tatar leader Ilmi Umerov, sentenced to two years in a penal colony because of his opposition to Russia's annexation of his homeland, said Wednesday he will appeal his conviction, even if it is a hopeless cause.

Speaking to VOA Russian reporter Danila Galperovich just after a court in Simferopol pronounced the sentence, Umerov said he had "no illusions" that there was any chance of overturning the verdict against him.

"Everything in this case, from opening a probe into it to ending it with this sentence, is an absolute hoax!" Umerov said during a telephone interview from Crimea. "Even prior to opening a probe into this, they started falsifying evidence, manipulating transactions and ascribing to me statements I never made."

Poor health and harsh sentence

Umerov was charged with "public calls for separatism," which was outlawed in Crimea after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory. While in detention he was forced to undergo a compulsory psychiatric examination. The sentence he received, two years in a penal colony, is considered a dangerous burden for a 60-year-old man who suffers from Parkinson's disease and diabetes.

The deputy chairman of the Crimean Tatars' Mejlis, the community's representative body, said he believed his harsh sentence was handed down in reaction to a United Nations report this week that noted a sharp deterioration in human rights in Crimea since Russia annexed the Ukrainian Peninsula on the Black Sea in March 2014.

"If I say that they are punishing me for my opinion, for my position, then it would be a little trite," said Umerov, who has been vocal and outspoken in his opposition to Russia's occupation of Crimea. "In general, I think this is a reaction to the document that was adopted two days ago at the U.N. General Assembly, on the situation with human rights in Crimea. It mentions many crimes that this occupation regime in Crimea is committing."

The report he cited, released Monday by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, recounted arbitrary arrests and detention, enforced disappearances, torture and ill treatment with no accountability since Russia asserted control over Crimea.

Ukraine crisis

Russia's seizure of its neighbor's territory and its ongoing military support for separatists in eastern Ukraine has triggered the biggest crisis between the Kremlin and the West since the end of the Cold War. Western sanctions have been imposed on Russia ever since.

Crimea's inviolable borders "have been accepted in the world and by agreements between the two countries, Ukraine and Russia," Umerov told VOA. "Russia, through its act of aggression, by annexing a part of the Ukrainian territory, violated its own law in the first place. And this must not remain unpunished."

Latest case of rights violations

Rights groups have condemned Umerov's treatment, conviction and sentence.

Amnesty International said Umerov’s case was the latest encroachment on fundamental rights and freedoms on the Crimean peninsula, and should be immediately canceled.

"The sentence of 60-year-old Ilmi Umerov, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, marks yet another stage in the de facto government’s lengthy persecution of him," said the director of the Ukrainian branch of Amnesty International, Oksana Pokalchuk. "His imprisonment follows a series of politically-motivated trials, arbitrary arrests and intimidation against critics of Russian authorities in Crimea. It is a clear violation of freedom of expression.”

Umerov's daughter, Ayshe Umerova, told Galperovich she believes the reaction to the verdict “will continue to grow like a snowball," in part because of her father's fragile health.

"The Russian system has once again surpassed itself,” Umerova said.

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