On May 12, a Russian-run court in Crimea charged Ilmi Umerov, the Deputy Head of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, with extremism for making public calls threatening Russia’s territorial integrity. A few weeks earlier, on April 26, Crimea’s top prosecutor, Natalya Poklonskaya, banned the Mejlis, as an extremist group, and declared all activity associated with the Tatar governing body unlawful.
These prosecutions are a product of amended anti-extremism legislation, which was passed in July 2014 by the Russian government following its annexation of Crimea in March 2014. The law, which has been criticized as vague and deeply problematic, is part of an increasing and distressing erosion of basic rights and freedoms in Crimea, where Kremlin-backed authorities are cracking down on opponents of the Russian annexation.
For now, members of Crimea’s Tatars, who make up approximately 12 % of the peninsula’s population, are most affected by the law, though several Russian citizens have also been charged with extremism. Far from an accident, focusing on the Tatar community is an out growth of decades-long tensions between Tatars and Russian leadership. In 1944, under orders from Joseph Stalin, Crimea’s entire Tatar population was deported to Central Asia, for allegedly collaborating with the Nazis. Their descendants returned in the 1980s to the peninsula, which was part of Ukraine at the time.
Since Crimea’s annexation two years ago, Tatars have faced continuous persecution at the hands of the Russian leadership. From closing mosques to shutting down Tatar media to preventing the community from commemorating the 71st anniversary of deportation, Tatars’ basic rights to assembly, freedom of speech, and religion have been systematically eroded.
The current anti-extremist legislation criminalizes, as “extremist,” any political activity or opposition to Russian control over Crimea. The legislation, which is part of Russia’s Criminal Code, makes calls for separatism a felony punishable by up to five years imprisonment.
The amendment has allowed prosecutors to crack down against any opposition to Russian rule over Crimea. Indeed, as some analysts and bloggers have noted, Umerov never called for separatism or violence, and, instead, simply expressed his opposition to Russia’s occupation of Crimea. His case confirms what many analysts and human rights activists feared – that Russia’s anti-extremism legislation would be used to criminalize dissent.