The Malta Independent 17 February 2020, Monday

Activist and Sakharov prize finalist fears situation in Crimea will become worse

Gabriel Schembri Thursday, 29 December 2016, 15:30 Last update: about 4 years ago

An activist for the Crimean Tartars, Mustafa Dzhemilev is one of the protagonists behind human rights activism under soviet rule. Faced with years of hardship while serving time in Soviet prison, his political achievements earned him a place among the finalists for this year's most prestigious European Parliament prize, the Sakharov Prize. In an interview with Gabriel Schembri, Mustafa Dzhemilev explains how this prize is perhaps a bit more personal for him as Andrei Sakharov was a close friend of his.

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We have followed the referendum in Crimea but I don't think many people have actually heard of you. Who is Mustafa Dzhemilev and what's the relation with Sakharov?

I am a human rights activist and was an activist in Soviet Russia. Andrei Sakharov was the leader of this activist movement in Russia. He has done a lot for the Crimean Tartars and was quite vociferous in saying that the Tartars have a right to go back to their land. It was thanks to Sakharov that I am still alive, because when I was in prison and declared a hunger strike, he was a great supporter of mine and did his best to let everyone know what the purpose of my protest was.

I was one of the last to be freed during the perestroika in 1986 as Sakharov was demanding that the political resistance should be freed. There was a list of 26 people, and I was the last one of them. In the last years of the Soviet Union we managed to organise ourselves and held a congress for the Crimean Tartars. A parliament was elected and I was elected as president and have been serving in my role for 23 years.

Am I right in saying that for you, the Sakharov prize is perhaps even more personal?  

I always believed that the Sakharov prize should be awarded to people who fight against lowliness and injustice and I know that there are other people who are working a lot and deserve this prize.

What does it mean for you to be named as finalist for this prestigious prize?

The very fact that I was nominated and was named a finalist was very important because it helped draw more attention on the faith of the Crimean Tartars. There were hundreds of publications, but I don't think many knew about what was happening with the Tartars, about who they are and what is their situation.

How do you see the situation in Crimea developing in the future?

I think the situation in Crimea will become worse. The terrorists' regimes are based on fear and the general feeling in Crimea is one of fear. For instance if you go with a microphone and approach a Crimean citizen to ask how he or she feels, either the person will become tense and say everything's fine, or they will praise Putin, or look away not to say anything. If they do say something, they will be liable under Article 280 (attempt to damage sovereignty of the area) which could land you five years in prison. This is what the Russian propaganda is always saying, that everyone is happy.

The other main faction of the Russian propaganda is saying that everyone can apply for Russian citizenship if they wanted to. But if you don't apply, you cannot survive, because you cannot go to work, go to school or see a doctor.

A look at the life of Mustafa Dzhemilev

Mustafa Dzhemilev is considered a strong symbol for those standing against Soviet totalitarianism and the repression of civil and national rights of the Tartar (a Muslim minority group) and Ukrainian people. Dzhemilev is a Ukrainian, Crimean and Tartar activist who chaired the Crimean Tartar local parliament before being elected to sit at the Ukrainian parliament. He has dedicated his life to a non-violent struggle in defence of human and minority rights and freedom of speech. Together with his friend, Andrei Sakharov, they stood against the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, and established the first civil rights group in the Soviet Union.

Born in Crimea, Dzhemilev was only six months old when his family, along with the rest of the Crimean Tartar population, was deported by Soviet authorities. He grew up in exile in Uzbekistan. In 1961, Dzhemilev and several of his friends established the Union of Young Crimean Tartars. Since then, he was living under constant surveillance.

Between 1966 and 1986, Dzhemilev was arrested six times for anti-soviet activities and had to serve time in soviet prisons and labour camps. He is also remembered for going on the longest hunger strike in the history of human rights movement, which lasted for 303 days. He had only survived after being force-fed.

In 1989, he was elected head of the newly founded Crimean Tartar National Movement and became chair of the Crimean Tartar local parliament, the Mejlis. His support to the Ukrainian struggle for the reform and democratic freedom formed bases of his election to the Ukrainian parliament in 1998.

In April 2014, Dzhemilev was banned by federal law from entering Russian territory for five years. Later, the Russians issued an arrest warrant for him and placed him on the federal wanted list for allegedly trying to cross the border illegally. He was also the target of various extremist groups for his advocacy of modern democracy among the Tartars.


 

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