From Bashkortostan to Crimea, freedom of expression in Russia’s stateless nations comes at a price

Mustafayev, Sautieva and Dilmukhametov (left to right).
Mustafayev, Sautieva and Dilmukhametov (left to right).
Recent confirmation of a prison sentence for Bashkir activist Airat Dilmukhametov has again highlighted the dangers of raising one’s voice for the rights of stateless nations and peoples in Russia. The Volga republics —such as Bashkortostan and Tatarstan—, Caucasus, and Crimea account for most of the cases.

Bashkortostan is one of Russia’s 85 federal subjects, or units. Of these, 22 have the status of republic. Generally speaking, the republics take their name from a nation or people other than the Russian people.

At the end of the Soviet Union, several declared themselves sovereign —including Bashkortostan— and signed autonomy agreements with Moscow. After Vladimir Putin became the president of Russia, the deals were gradually cut and abolished, resulting in a growing recentralisation of power in the Kremlin.

Dilmukhametov, a historic opponent of the Bashkir government, was sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment after being accused of calling for the violation of Russia’s territorial integrity, inciting extremist activities, and making terrorist propaganda.

The accusations are mainly based on a video in which Dilmukhametov proposes that Russia’s constituent units, beginning with Bashkortostan, agree to establish a new Russian federation. Should the new federation violate their rights, the Bashkir activist goes on, its units should be allowed to secede. The accusations also draw from Dilmukhametov’s criticism of authorities following the imprisonment of Bashkir citizens accused of belonging to Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir.

According to the SOVA Information Centre, the Dilmukhametov case is an example of the “misuse of Russia’s anti-extremist legislation.” The organisation, which specialises in research on nationalism, xenophobia, and racism in Russia, argues that Dilmukhametov’s speech was not “about secession from Russia, but about renegotiating a federal agreement,” apart from not having called “for violent methods to implement it.” Preventing a public discussion on the restructuring of Russia “excessively restricts the right to freedom of speech,” the NGO says.

Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest human rights associations, agrees with SOVA’s analysis, and adds that the case is “directly related” to Dilmukhametov’s “civic and political activities.”

Memorial lists the man as one of 362 political prisoners in Russia. The list, the organisation says, is “incomplete” and includes 297 people “imprisoned in connection with the exercise of the right to freedom of religion or religious affiliation” and 65 “for other political reasons,” as is the case of the Bashkir activist.

Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Crimean Tatars

Of the 297 people in the religious section, 191 have been convicted for belonging to Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir. Many of them are Crimean Tatars.

Hizb ut-Tahrir has been active on the Black Sea peninsula at least since the beginning of the 21st century. Russian authorities blame it for recruiting Crimean Tatars for terrorist activities. According to Crimean Tatar groups and human rights organisations, Russian authorities use this context as an excuse to deliberately suppress Tatars who are critical of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Hizb ut-Tahrir, which defines itself as a political party, advocates the establishment of an international caliphate ruled by Sharia law. The group claims its methods are “exclusively political,” though it encourages people to take up arms in the event of “an attack by infidel enemies against an Islamic country.” States such as Germany, Russia, China, and most countries in North Africa and the Middle East have banned it. In contrast, in Ukraine —to which Crimea de iure belongs according to most countries— it is legal.

Human Rights Watch says there is a “pattern of repression to smear peaceful activists as terrorists” and “to portray Crimean Tatars who oppose Russia’s occupation as ‘terrorists’ and ‘extremists’.”

One of the most talked about cases in 2020 was that of Server Mustafayev. This is not the only case of its kind, but his imprisonment is yet another example of a context that the Crimean Human Rights Group describes as follows: the “application of Russian Federation’s antiterrorist legislation as a tool of persecuting Crimean Muslims, Crimean Tatar activists and citizen journalists has become a tradition of all the years of occupation of the peninsula.”

As regards Mustafayev, he was sentenced on 16 September 2020 by a Russian military court to 14 years in prison over links to Hizb ut-Tahrir. Mustafayev is a founding member of Crimean Solidarity, an organisation providing economic and legal support to families of repressed Crimean Tatars, including those with cases linked to Hizb ut-Tahrir. Mustafayev’s lawyers and family claim that he was convicted merely on the basis of some casual talks in a mosque, and argue that the Russian authorities’ real goal is to suppress the Tatar solidarity movement. “This is a political order. To put it simply: no nation, no problem," says Rustem Mustafayev, the prisoner's father. Amnesty has called for Server Mustafayev’s immediate release.

“The Crimean Tatar community has been particularly targeted by the Russian authorities,” complains the organisation Front Line Defenders, which reports “numerous violations” of Mustafayev’s right to defence during his trial. His conviction “constitutes a deliberate misuse of anti-terrorist legislation aimed at the prosecution and deterrence of human rights defenders’ work in Crimea.”

Repression is not only suffered by those (accused of being) linked to Hizb ut-Tahrir or their families. The main secular organisation representing the Crimean Tatar people, the Mejlis, was banned in 2016, two years after the occupation of the peninsula, over “extremism”. The Mejlis calls for the return of Crimea to Ukraine and for national autonomy for the Crimean Tatars.

In addition to supporting families, Crimean Solidarity has also raised international awareness on the situation of the Crimean Tatar people, and has become one of the few alternative sources of information to state or government-supporting media. “Crimea and Chechnya,” says Reporters Without Borders, “have become ‘black holes’ from which little news and information emerges.” Another two republics in Russia’s Caucasus —Dagestan and Ingushetia— are following suit.

Ingushetia’s territorial integrity and Kuban’s lone ‘separatist’

Memorial’s list of political prisoners also includes people linked to national demands of other peoples of Russia. Most of them are Ingush, one of the smallest nations in the North Caucasus. This is the case of Rashid Maisigov, a journalist sentenced to three years’ imprisonment over drug possession. Maisigov has also been accused by the Russian security agency, the FSB, of being in possession of leaflets containing slogans advocating the union of Ingushetia to neighbouring Georgia.

Maisigov's defense says the drugs, found by the police in his home, were planted by someone, and further claims that the sentence actually has to do with Maisigov’s journalistic follow-up of the March and April 2019 protests in Ingushetia for the website “A completely fabricated case,” Reporters Without Borders says, which “speaks to a desire to suppress criticism in the North Caucasus.”

The 2019 protests were the popular reaction to an agreement signed by the presidents of Ingushetia, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, and Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, on the delimitation of the two republics. Under the agreement, Ingushetia gavee up 340 square kilometres —9% of its territory— to Chechnya. In June, Yevkurov resigned. Meanwhile, Kadyrov —a Kremlin protégé with a long record of human rights violations who has the ability to censor articles critical of him in the Russian press— remains in charge. Now, ruling over a larger republic.

Several people who led the protests were also arrested, and remain in prison. This is the case of Zarifa Sautieva and Akhmed Barakhoyev, Musa Malsagov, Ismail Nalguiev, Malsag Uzhakhov, and Barakh Chemurziev, leaders of the Ingush Committee for National Unity, which was accused of organising “acts of violence.” According to Memorial, there was no such act, as civil leaders merely called on demonstrators to peacefully resist when the time allowed for the protest was over.

In 2020, the Ingush Committee was declared illegal.

Repression also reaches the Tatarstan nationalists —one of the Volga republics, like Bashkortostan— and those who simply use freedom of speech to demand respect for Tatar, one of the republic’s two official languages. The situation is now more unfavourable for the language, as in 2018, the Russian Parliament abolished the compulsory use of the federation republics’ own languages in schools. Three Tatar nationalists, in August 2020, were fined or sentenced to community service for speaking out against what they perceive as Russian colonial oppression of the Tatar people.

The surveillance on what is being said also reaches citizens from outside those republics. Russian activist Daria Polyudova has been prosecuted and imprisoned twice on charges of “inciting separatism.” The first was for sharing a publication on social networks stating that Kuban Ukrainians would like to secede from Russia and join Ukraine. The second, for having staged a solo demonstration supporting what the FSB understood as a call for the secession of several areas of eastern Russia. Polyudova is also now accused of “inciting terrorism” for having shared a publication favourable about late Chechen leaders Shamil Basayev and Aslan Maskhadov. The activist has been detained since January 2020, and her second case is pending trial.