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After Russia's Annexation of Crimea, a Nation Under Siege

22/09/2014 11:12 BST | Updated 19/11/2014 10:59 GMT

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On 18 May 1944 a young Crimean Tatar poet named Idris Asanin began a torturous journey to Central Asia at the gunpoint of Stalin's secret police, the NKVD. Along with hundreds of thousands of other Crimean Tatars, a Turkic-speaking Sunni Muslim people indigenous to Crimea, Asanin's family endured an ordeal of mass death and brutal dispossession that claimed the lives of at least thirty percent of the entire population, mainly women, children and the elderly. Thirty percent - that is thirty times the percentage of the British population killed in the Second World War.

The deportation is known as Sürgün (The Exile) in the Crimean Tatar language. Asanin's mother and father did not survive it. In Soviet Uzbekistan, where he was forced into a 'special settlement camp', the young poet channelled his grief into verse. 'Menim antım' (My Pledge, 1944), one of the first literary works in the Crimean Tatar language to confront the deportation, is a defiant scream into darkness. Its stanzas - which would be later cited by Soviet authorities in a trial that sentenced Asanin to twenty-five years in prison - are a catalogue of abuse and alienation: Crimean Tatar funerals are mocked by onlookers, their sacred prayers are interrupted, their dead are forgotten. His lyrical persona cries out and asks, 'How can I bear it all without succumbing to rage?'

Today, seventy years after the deportation of the Crimean Tatars, Asanin's question resounds with a tragic new relevance. After struggling for generations to return to and resettle on the Black Sea peninsula, the Crimean Tatars are now under persistent assault from the state authorities of the Russian Federation, which illegally occupied and annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March.

In May, forbidden by decree to gather in public and commemorate the deportation anniversary, the Crimean Tatars had to break the law to mourn and honour their dead. The situation has since deteriorated steadily. Yesterday (18 September 2014) the premises of the Crimean Tatar representative assembly in Simferopol - the Mejlis - were blocked and seized under dubious legal pretext by agents of the Russian Federal Bailiff Service. This dramatic move is only the latest in a series of measures designed to intimidate, provoke and divide Crimea's moderate Muslim population.

The Russian campaign against longstanding Crimean Tatar institutions and activists has potentially far-reaching geopolitical repercussions, particularly as the West engages with renewed pace in a fight against Islamic fundamentalism. For decades, the Crimean Tatar national movement has refused, in Asanin's poignant words, to 'succumb to rage'. It has disavowed religious and political extremism and demonstrated a commitment to the practice of non-violent resistance against state injustice. It is a powerful example of devout Muslim dissidence: peaceful, principled and politically effective.

Indeed, at a time when public discourse in the West swells with irresponsible implications and assertions of an incompatibility between pacifism and Islam, the Crimean Tatars deserve our undivided attention. In the late 1980s, through relentless petitioning and community-building, they prevailed over the Soviet system and won the right to return to Crimea. In the post-Soviet period, facing poverty as well as political and cultural chauvinism, their leaders vigorously countered Wahabbist proselytism and worked closely with the Ukrainian state to finance this repatriation. In 1999 alone, for instance, Kyiv allocated twenty million hryven - approximately five million US dollars - to fund Crimean Tatar resettlement programs and attendant infrastructure projects. It was a rare, if imperfect and contested, example of historical reconciliation that went beyond mere rhetoric and produced material reparation for an injured people.

Leading the Crimean Tatar movement through these transitions has been Mustafa Dzhemiliev (Mustafa Cemiloğlu, aka Mustafa Abdülcemil Qırımoğlu), who is now seventy-one years old. Although small in stature, Dzhemiliev is a giant. As an infant, he survived the deportation to Central Asia. As a young man, he survived the Gulag, enduring a 303-day hunger strike in the mid-1970s that garnered headlines around the world. In 1989 he made an emotional return to the ancestral homeland that he fought his entire life to see.

Today, however, Dzhemiliev is forbidden to set foot in Crimea. The Kremlin's Crimean authorities are subjecting him to a new exile. They are doing the same to Refat Chubarov, the Chair of the Mejlis, who was prohibited in July from returning to the Black Sea peninsula. Both of these leaders have been targeted for their political beliefs. There is a saying: naibilshymy ukraintsiamy v Krymu ie krymski tatary. 'The greatest Ukrainians in Crimea are the Crimean Tatars.' Like most Crimean Tatars, and like most governments around the globe, Dzhemiliev and Chubarov still regard Crimea as part of an independent, sovereign Ukraine and do not accept the Russian annexation of the peninsula. They called upon the Crimean Tatar community to boycott both the 'Potemkin referendum' in March and the local parliamentary elections this week.

To separate these men from their homes is an extreme injustice, yet it is they who must fend off accusations of 'extremism'. In May, when Dzhemiliev attempted to cross from mainland Ukraine into Crimea, many hundreds of Crimean Tatars pushed past Russian troops and riot police to meet him. The state authorities drew weapons, but the Crimean Tatars again refused to resort to violence, shouting instead 'Mustafa! Mustafa!' The Prosecutor-General of Crimea characterized this abortive encounter at the border as an 'extremist action' and threatened to dissolve the Mejlis in recompense. The Kremlin's Crimean authorities then made a more targeted threat against Dzhemiliev, subjecting his house to a search at the hands of the Russian Security Service (FSB) for evidence of 'terrorism'. The incident led to the hospitalization of his wife, Safinar Dzhemilieva.

Raids of the homes of known Crimean Tatar activists have continued for months. This week, according to human rights monitors, agents of the FSB bearing automatic weapons ransacked the apartment of Eskender Bariev, a Mejlis representative who was at home with his wife and two young children - one four years old, the other only six months. Explanations from Russian authorities for these intimidatory tactics usually contain vague, unsubstantiated refrains about 'extremism'. For the editors of the Crimean Tatar newspaper Avdet (The Return), who were called before the Prosecutor-General in June, this 'extremism' reportedly consisted in their mere use of terms 'annexation' and 'occupation' in reference to today's Crimea.

Amid the tumult of the annexation a half a year ago, journalists and politicians made the future of the Crimean Tatars a central topic of discussion. 'Mindful of Past, Many Tatars Fear a Russian Future' ran one New York Times headline in March. The article quotes a Crimean Tatar who said, 'If we speak honestly, we're all afraid... If they want to, they will come for us.' His fear has come to pass: the Kremlin's Crimean authorities are clearly coming for the Crimean Tatar Mejlis. They are not only subjecting a people traumatized by Stalinist violence to new threats and backdoor deportations. They are showing an implicit disdain for, and testing the limits of, a tradition of Muslim non-violence and political moderation that the world needs to support and understand today.