THE BLOG
11/05/2014 12:44 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

Standing Together for Crimean Tartars

By Rabbi Marc Schneier and Mohammed Khan

As an American Jewish and an American Muslim leader dedicated to the principle that Muslims and Jews should stand up for each other whenever the rights of members of either community are violated anywhere in the world, we are speaking out together against the ever-intensifying campaign of intimidation and punishment against the Crimean Tatars that has been underway ever since Russia invaded seized and annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine last March.

In recent weeks, even as the world has turned its attention away from Crimea toward other world conflicts such as the bloody Russian-supported insurgency in Eastern Ukraine, the Crimean provincial government, with the apparent full support of the FSB (former KGB), has accelerated its effort to force the Crimean Tatars, a small Muslim ethnic Turkic community of about 250,000, which is the indigenous population of Crimea and today accounts for about 12 percent of the population, to accept the Russian takeover of Crimea as legitimate.

This campaign has included a series of strong-arm measures, ranging from threats and harassment to torture and outright murder, according to activists and credible journalistic accounts (1).The world community must urgently remind the Russian government that it has a legal responsibility, as the occupying power in Crimea, to protect the basic human rights of all the citizens of Crimea, including the Crimean Tatars; who lost nearly half of their population to disease and starvation when they were exiled to Central Asia by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1944, and now fear they may be facing a second forced exile from their homeland in 70 years.

Shortly after its takeover of Crimea, the Russian government commenced a charm campaign to give the impression that it would treat the Crimean Tatars fairly. In mid-March, President Vladimir Putin spoke personally by phone to Mustafa Dzhemilev, the elder statesman of the Crimean Tatars; assuring him that the Tatars had no reason to fear Russian rule. On the contrary, Putin said soothingly, "Measures will be taken to solve all (of) the social and legal problems of Crimean Tatars that went unsolved by the Ukrainian authorities for many years (2)."

Would that it were so! Instead, the Crimean Tatars were almost immediately confronted by full-bore repression. The first step was to deprive the Tatars of their two top leaders; Dzhemilev, a human rights activist who sat in the gulag for years during Soviet times, and Refat Chubarov, President of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis (Parliament), which has governed the internal affairs of the community since the return of the Tatars from exile to Crimea after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This was accomplished last spring when Crimean authorities refused to allow Djemilev and Chubarov to return to Crimea from separate meetings in Ukraine (3), falsely accusing both of supposed incitement to extremism, even though they have been adamant in insisting that their people stick to non-violent tactics in resisting their occupiers.

In late May, Crimean authorities banned the Tatars from marking their annual commemoration of the 1944 exile in the center of the capital city of Simferopol as they had done every year since the early 1990s. They finally agreed under international pressure to allow the ceremony to go forward in a cemetery on the edge of town, but the solemnity of the occasion was marred by Russian helicopters buzzing overhead (4). In a recent interview, Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov, a onetime businessman widely known as "the Goblin" for alleged Mafia ties (5), accused Crimean Tatars of "morally humiliating Russians" by commemorating the 1944 deportation and threatened that they could be deported again if they "pit people against each other on interethnic grounds (6)."

Clearly infuriated by the Tatars act of defiance in going ahead with the memorial event, the authorities launched raids over the course of the summer on Crimean Tatar cultural centers and mosques. The situation worsened dramatically in mid-September when FSB officers raided the headquarters of the Mejlis; seizing documents, USB flash cards, Islamic literature and computers. Aksyonov then declared the Mejis dissolved, asserting that the body was "never properly registered" and therefore "does not exist (7)."

Also during September, the authorities have closed down the main Crimean Tatar library (8); and ordered the Crimean Tatar television station, ATR to hand over documents and a list of employees (9). Most ominously, two young Crimean Tatar activists, Islam Dzhepparov, 19, and Dzhevdet Islamov, 23 were abducted on September 27 by unidentified men in uniform. Despite the young men's families having immediately reported the abduction, and provided the registration number of the vehicle, there is still no sign of them (10). The apparent kidnapping of Dzepparov and Dzhevdet was chillingly reminiscent of the abduction torture and murder of Reshat Ahmetov, a Tatar activist who was filmed being seized by paramilitary units in late March while holding a solitary protest outside a government building in Simferopol. His battered body was later found, but no one has been charged in that crime (11).

In the face of this growing repression, there has been a dismaying tendency in both Europe and the U.S., to portray the Russian takeover of Crimea as a fait accompli that will be impossible to reverse. One important leader who has not forsaken the Crimean Tatars, Congressman Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, gave a stirring speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, in which he called upon the U.S. and our allies not to leave the brave Crimean Tatars to their fate. According to Royce, "By refusing to surrender to endless threats and centuries of oppression, the Tatar people continue to give hope to all those around the world who are battling overwhelming forces in defense of their homes and freedom."

Indeed, the oppression the Crimean Tatars have endured at the hands of Russia did not begin last March, but goes back to the overthrow of the Crimean Tatar Khanate by Catherine the Great of Russia in 1783. For more than a century thereafter, Russian Tsarist and Soviet governments alike brutalized the Crimean Tatars; destroying mosques and encouraging an influx of Russians and Ukrainians into the peninsula; finally exiling the entire Crimean Tatar population in boxcars to Uzbekistan, a hellish trip during which 46 percent of the total population is said to have died (12).

The Crimean Tatars began returning to their homeland in large numbers in the early 1990's after the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the creation of an autonomous Crimea within independent Ukraine. However, there was widespread, sometimes violent, resistance to the return of the Tatars by some members of the ethnic Russian majority in Crimea. We are proud that, with the support of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which works to strengthen Muslim-Jewish relations around the world, Crimean Jews and Tatars in the peninsula held joint cultural celebrations and joined forces in demanding that Crimean authorities take a stronger stand in denouncing and apprehending criminals who scrawled swastikas and other hateful graffiti on both mosques and synagogues (13).

At this critical juncture, we call upon the Russian authorities to reverse their order closing the Mejlis end their efforts to allow Crimean Tatars to express their opinions and practice their faith freely in accordance with international law protecting the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. Until that happens, we urge leaders of all faith communities and people of conscience to stand in solidarity with the beleaguered Crimean Tatars in their struggle for survival in their ancestral homeland. If we allow the rights of this small people to be violated, we diminish the cause of freedom and justice everywhere in the world.

Rabbi Marc Schneier is President of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and co-author with Imam Shamsi Ali of Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation About the Issues that Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims. Mohammed Khan is the Interfaith Director of the King Fahad Mosque in Los Angeles and President of the Society to Offer Prosperity and Peace (STOPP).

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1. Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty October 3, 2014 http://www.rferl.org/content/crimean-tatars-ukraine-harassment-intimidation-russia/26618766.html

2. Reuters March 12, 2014 http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/12/us-ukraine-crisis-putin-crimean-idUSBREA2B1CM20140312

3. Kyiv Post, August 7, 2014 http://www.kyivpost.com/content/ukraine/five-months-after-russian-takeover-crimean-tatars-unhappy-with-new-rulers-359774.html

4. New Yorker May 21, 2014 http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-crimean-tatars-bitter-anniversary

5. Time Magazine March 10, 2014 http://time.com/19097/putin-crimea-russia-ukraine-aksyonov/

6. Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty October 3, 2014 http://www.rferl.org/content/crimean-tatars-ukraine-harassment-intimidation-russia/26618766.html

7. Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, September 22, 2014 http://www.rferl.org/content/aksyonov-crimea-rights-mejlis-tatars-russia-ukraine/26599565.html

8. Radio Liberty Radio Free Europe September 17, 2014 http://www.rferl.org/content/crimea-tatars/26595092.html

9. World Bulletin September 25, 2014 http://www.worldbulletin.net/haber/145133/crimean-govt-targets-tatar-tv-channel-in-new-crackdown

10. Kyiv Post, September 29, 2014 http://khpg.org/index.php?id=1411937159

11. Wall Street Journal March 18, 2014 http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304017604579447622545558270

12. Kyiv Post, May 18, 2014 http://www.kyivpost.com/content/ukraine/seventy-years-after-their-deportation-crimean-tatars-defy-meeting-ban-to-commemorate-anniversary-348320.html

13. Foundation for Ethnic Understanding Weekend of Twinning Blog page 6 http://ffeu.wordpress.com/page/6/