Mustafa Dzhemilev is on the federal wanted list. He is a long-time Soviet dissident and the historic leader of the Crimean Tatars who has been barred by Russian authorities from entering his homeland – the Crimean Peninsula – for five years. Last Tuesday, October 11, Dzhemilev was shortlisted for the 2016 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, an annual award given by the European Parliament to “exceptional individuals and organizations defending human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
A former chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars, the community’s governing body, Dzhemilev has been at the forefront of Crimean Tatar opposition to Russian occupation of the peninsula. He vocally opposed the referendum in March 2014, which led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Upon attempting to travel back to Crimea in April 2014, Dzhemilev was handed a document on the Ukrainian border informing him he was banned from entering Russian territory for five years. Russian authorities have denied issuing a travel ban against Dzhemilev, but he remains unable to return to his homeland.
In January 2016, Crimea’s General Prosecutor Natalia Poklonskaya formally placed Dzhemilev on a federal wanted list. According to Poklonskaya, Crimea’s Russian-run Supreme Court was opening a criminal investigation against the Tatar leader. She did not specify the grounds for the investigation, saying she did not want to obstruct the prosecutors’ work.
Long before Crimea’s annexation, Dzhemilev was an outspoken advocate for justice and freedom. According to a recent account of his life published by the Economist, he protested against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and signed letters in defense of prisoners of conscience. Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet physicist and dissident after whom the European Parliament’s prize is named, publicly supported Dzhemilev in his struggle against the Soviet regime. When Dzhemilev went on a 303-day hunger strike while serving time in prison for anti-Soviet activities, Sakharov sent him a note saying: “Your death will only benefit our enemies. I ask you to stop.” As The Economist reports, almost half a decade later, Dzhemilev used those same words with Nadezhda Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot captured by Russia in June 2014, who also went on hunger strike during her imprisonment.
Much like Dzhemilev’s activism, tensions between Tatars and Russia long predate Russian annexation of Crimea. The Kremlin has used its annexation of the territory to exert its authoritarian grip over the Tatars, from closing mosques to shutting down Tatar media to preventing the community from commemorating the 71st anniversary of its deportation from Crimea.
On April 26, the Russian-run Supreme Court of the Crimean Republic outlawed the Tatar Mejlis, branding it an extremist organization and banning its activities throughout Russia. Since the annexation, Russia has also targeted Tatar leaders, beyond Dzhemilev. Less than a month after banning the Tatar Mejlis, the court charged Ilmi Umerov, the Mejlis’s deputy head, with extremism for making public calls threatening Russia’s territorial integrity.
During this time of continuous persecution of Crimean Tatars, Dzhemilev’s nomination for the Sakharov Prize is an important gesture. The Tatar leader not only represents his people’s struggle for freedom of assembly, expression, and self-determination. He also symbolizes the decades-long struggle of millions of dissidents against repression in the Soviet Union and modern Russia.
That the European community finds Dzhemilev worthy of the Sakharov Prize is a recognition of his personal struggle for freedom, as well as an explicit expression of support for Crimea’s oppressed ethnic minority. It is also a rejection of Russia’s continuous attempts to criminalize and stigmatize those who dare speak against oppression.