Solidarity in Military Courts: Crimean Tatars in Global History, Politics and Practices

Author: Alvina Hoffmann

What kinds of transnational or global strategies can local activists mobilise for themselves to generate international attention and solidarity? This is a central question for many Crimean activists as they face criminalisation and incarceration of Crimean Tatar men in Crimea since its annexation by Russia on 18 March 2014. Based on the ongoing military court trials of Crimean Tatar men and how as a response women have emerged as central activist voices, I propose to explore three different but closely linked global struggles in which Crimean Tatars are implicated: the global history of indigenous peoples’ rights which was already mobilised by Crimean Tatar political leaders long before the annexation of Crimea; the global politics of extremism legislation as part of counter-terrorism efforts which has been employed arbitrarily and overly harshly to criminalise and defame activists; and a reading of the on-going trials of Crimean Tatars as part of global practices of incarceration.

© Alina Smutko

Mass Arrests Transforming the Social Fabric of Crimean Tatar Communities

Since Russia annexed Crimea over six years ago, the social fabric of the local Crimean Tatar communities has been profoundly changed. To this date, over 60 Crimean Tatar men have been arrested in 10 groups in various cities around Crimea, the latest of which was in March 2020 (see here for a graphic and list with pictures of arrested men, including additional individual cases). All these men have either already received or are anticipating very long and harsh prison sentences – 10, 15, or 20 years in a penal colony in mainland Russia – on the basis of terrorism charges, created through an overly harsh and arbitrary application of Russian extremism legislation. The men are said to belong to the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir which is deemed a terrorist organisation in Russia but legal in Ukraine of which Crimea was an autonomous region before its annexation. With so many
imprisoned men, fathers, husbands, and brothers, Crimean Tatar mothers are turned into single mothers and left to raise their numerous children by themselves. However, activist Mumine Saliyeva – whose husband is also facing terrorism charges – created a project entitled ‘Crimean Childhood’, supporting mothers like herself and now nearly 200 children growing up without their fathers (see here for an interview with her). What stood out when interviewing local activists is the great number of primarily female activists who have been taking centre stage in Crimea’s activist and dissident circles.

The trials take place in a military court in Rostov-on-Don, like all terrorism-related charges in Russia. Rostov-on-Don is around 700 km away from Crimea in the Russian oblast of Rostov, which the activists and affected wives who graciously found time to talk to me all highlighted as an impediment for on-site support and mobilisation. Nonetheless, this is an obstacle which won’t stop them from travelling there by bus, embarking on long journeys to show solidarity and be present for their community. Trials in Rostov are open to public audiences but closed in Crimea where they are treated as state secrets, showing how
different, often arbitrary rules apply in Crimea compared to mainland Russia. However, as one of the leading activist voices Lutfiye Zudiyeva notes, it is much easier to mobilise a great number of people in front of the courts in Crimea than Rostov. Nonetheless, still 90 to 100 Crimean Tatars travel to Rostov whenever trials take place there.

In light of this, Lutfiye Zudiyeva recalled a fascinating story. During one hearing, many Crimean Tatar supporters had travelled to Rostov but were not allowed into the small court rooms. Being left outside on the corridor, they noted that in the neighbouring court room, men from Ingushetia, a Russian oblast in the Caucasus, were tried on the same charges with close to no audience. Being moved by a shared Muslim religious identity, the Crimean Tatars sat down in the audience and supported the Ingushetian men on trial. According to the activist, this left a deep impression with the Ingushetian community, noting that other people can build on this example of solidarity and self-organisation.

© Alina Smutko

Local Activism and Global Patterns: Making Connections

In the remainder of this post, I want to generalise from this account and identify three different and interlinked global processes through which the Crimean Tatar struggles can be understood. The first is the global history of Indigenous peoples’ struggling for their rights. The Crimean Tatars have long before the annexation pursued this strategy in relation to the Ukrainian state. Crimean Tatars identify themselves as Crimea’s Indigenous people and share common memories of the first annexation of Crimea by Russia in 1783. Previously, Crimea was ruled by Crimean Tatar rulers who established the Crimean Khanate from 1475 onwards  which was under Ottoman tutelage (see hereand here for more in-depth historical studies). Another central and dramatic event was the deportation of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia under Stalin in 1944, for their ‘ostensible collaboration with German and Romanian forces during’ World War II (see Greta Uehling). The most recent annexation, then, becomes part of this broader history and memory passed on to generations. Their Muslim religious identity, customs and language are shared practices and allow people to self-identify as Crimean Tatar.

© Alina Smutko

The Crimean Tatars were given a special political representative organ, the Mejlis, by the Ukrainian state, but no special rights were enshrined in the constitution. When the UN passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, Ukraine abstained from signing it despite encouragements from the Crimean Tatars. Finally, a few months after the annexation in 2014, the Ukrainian state signed the Declaration and is leveraging the Crimean Tatar’s minority and Indigenous rights in international courts, for example in the most recent ICJ ruling in which Ukraine refers to Crimean Tatars as the Indigenous people of Crimea.

Second, the legal machine that continues to criminalise and incarcerate Crimean Tatars, and other vocal dissent voices, is part of a broader global practice that states mobilise in their counter-terrorism policies. A 2020 report by Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, UN Special Rapporteur on protecting human rights while countering terrorism, analyses widespread uses of anti-extremism policies, in particular in contexts which lack a human rights-based approach to these questions. T These policies are problematic as they lack a precise legal definition of extremism, potentially leading to mass violations of human rights in many contexts. The report traces how ‘violent extremism’ entered into international policy agendas on counter-terrorism in the mid-2000s, underlining governmental approaches to combat terrorism by using hard military power as well as other ‘soft power’ approaches. At the UN level, the language of extremism entered in 2010 in a Security Council resolution. In a field visit to Kazakhstan, Special Rapporteur Ní Aoláin encountered similar questions of extremism legislation used, and potentially abused, to counter terrorism. Crimean Tatars, then, become part of a broader global politics of extremism legislation used to criminalise, defame and incarcerate activists and other local dissidents.

Finally, inspired by Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s ground-breaking work on the massive expansion of the prison system and incarceration rates in California since 1982 despite a falling criminality rate, I want to conclude this post by reflecting on the group arrests of Crimean Tatars in light of global practices of incarceration. The choice of incarceration itself as a means to ‘punish’ dissidents is not surprising given the context. But relative numbers reveal just how wide-ranging the practice of incarceration as a solution to social problems is in Russia. While noting a downward trend in its prison population, falling by 45% since 2000, in 2018 Russia recorded a prison population of 402 per 100,000 people, the fifth most of any state after Rwanda (464), Thailand (526), El Salvador (604) and the United States (655). Many factors need to be considered when analysing incarceration practices and the vast system that upholds this machine. This ranges from lengths of sentences, lengthy pre-trial detention in which people are held over long periods of time – some Crimean Tatars for example are held over several years before their official court hearings begin – and the legal system itself and by whom it is enforced. As a few interviewees noted, many judges and other civil servants retained their posts in Crimea even after the annexation and now need to deal with, enforce and interpret a completely new legal system they were not trained in. Crime legislation has profound effects through the ways in which it governs, classifies and divides society. Finally, geography itself matters, as already pointed out above in interviews with activists. Once sentenced, the prisons could be similarly far away from Crimea, on the margins of society, putting serious constraints on visits and continuous social integration of criminalised groups.

Questions of solidarity and care for communities are of vital importance to the Crimean Tatars, as shown by their grassroots mobilisation and activism. They allow us to see connections and links with other struggles which would remain obscured in geopolitical or foreign policy accounts in which Crimea is merely an object of great power interest.

© Alina Smutko

Alvina Hoffmann is a PhD candidate in International Relations in the department of War Studies, King’s College London, funded by LISS DTP. Her research examines rights claims from the perspective of those who claim to speak with authority on behalf of social groups or a cause. She is a research assistant for the ERC funded project Security Flows and previously worked at Millennium: Journal of International Studies as the review article editor, social media officer and member of the editorial board.


Special thanks to Alina Smutko for her beautiful photographs from Crimea, Lutfiye Zudiyeva from Crimean Solidarity and Mumine Saliyeva from Crimean Childhood, two brave, generous and tireless activist voices, and Alyona Savchuk who generously connected me to local voices. Thanks also to Kerry Goettlich, Andy Li and Alireza Shams-Lahijani for great comments.


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