Tilting at windmills

It’s Reshat Ametov’s birthday today. He’d be 42. He was abducted and killed in Crimea in 2014, and this video clip shows the people who, to a greater or lesser extent, colluded in his murder. We don’t know to what extent, because despite the evidence of this video, they’ve never been put on trial for his abduction. No one has. The case is indefinitely on hold.

The cameraman featured in this film has also never come forward. If he’s still in Crimea, I’m not sure I can entirely blame him; he’d probably end up standing trial himself for ‘inciting mass unrest’ or ‘attempting to overthrow the Russian government by force’. This is not a joke. Since I wrote about the Ametovs in 2015, several people in Crimea face precisely these charges with far less ‘evidence’ against them than even a video showing them filming something that should not be filmed.

Below is a piece I published in June 2015 about the Ametovs and the film. it’s no longer available online so I’m sharing it here. It looks oddly naive now; only three cases of obvious miscarriages of justice?

Perhaps that cameraman will read it…

I never knew Reshat Ametov. I know his brother Refat, and can’t help thinking that his description of Reshat as a tilter at windmills applies just as well to himself.

Over the last year, Refat Ametov has spent uncountable hours obsessively watching and re-watching the same clips of video footage.

Shot in Crimea on March 3 2014, they show his younger brother, Reshat, standing in front of soldiers in unmarked uniform guarding the Crimean Cabinet of Ministers in Lenin square, central Simferopol. Passersby, journalists and men in camouflage and with red armbands mill around the square; police sirens sound in the background. For over an hour, Reshat Ametov just stands there. Then some of the men in camouflage take his arms and lead him to a black car that has just driven up, and he is not there anymore.

This video footage is the last time Refat can see his brother alive. Reshat, 39, a Crimean Tatar father of three who had been making a solitary, silent protest against the Russian occupation of Crimea, was found brutally murdered almost two weeks later, on the eve of a referendum on Crimea joining the Russian Federation.

Now Refat hopes clues in the footage could help find the killers of his brother, who international human rights organisations call the first victim of the Russian annexation.

Russian soldiers in unmarked uniform had just taken over government buildings throughout the peninsula on February 27 2014. Calls for unification with Russia were opposed by the peninsula’s indigenous Muslim people the Crimean Tatars, but any organised opposition was threatened by rapidly-formed brigades of locals and people from Russia, calling themselves Crimean people’s self defence militias. These are the men in camouflage or with red armbands clearly seen in the March 3 video footage, who take Reshat and drive away with him in the car. His body was found 60 km away, near the village of Zemlyanichnoe in Belogorsk region, on March 15.

Over a year after Russian annexation, no one has been charged over Reshat’s kidnapping and death. Despite the evidence of the video footage, much of which went out live on the Crimean Tatar TV channel ATR, Crimean government head Sergei Aksyonov announced he was confident the self defence militias were not involved. Authorities opened a case into murder but not abduction, and suspended the investigation in November 2014, officially because they can’t find a suspect. The story has completely dropped out of Russian and Crimean media – where independent outlets, including ATR, have been raided and shut down.

“Crimean mass media won’t cover it in principle, and people from civil society organisations or the authorities won’t touch this case, because it’s a hundred percent lost,” Refat said from his home near Simferopol. “The people who did this serve Russia.”

Yet Refat, who before the annexation worked as an electrician, has not given up. He has been hunting out more evidence in a one-man investigation he hopes will finally bring his brother’s kidnappers, torturers and killers to justice.

“You have to know what they did to my brother,” he said. The evidence he has collected includes hard-to-view photographs from the post-mortem showing the multiple injuries Reshat suffered. “He was tortured over ten days. They stuck a spike through his forehead to kill and get rid of him. Before that he was alive, through all of what they did…When people know that, they feel something different, right?”

When, on March 5, a friend alerted him to the video showing his brother’s abduction, Refat first sent his and Reshat’s family to safe locations. He found out which division of the self defence militia had been on guard on Lenin Square that day, and found their headquarters. “I was there, and Reshat was [taken] there too, I guess,” he said. “I asked them for help, and they actually tried to help me, they were just simple, local guys.” The militia members he met offered to look for Reshat among the prisoners being held in basements around the city. They claimed to find nothing.

Refat tried to track down people visible in the video footage who might be able to offer evidence or clues. The footage shows several journalists at the scene. In particular a cameraman, visible only from the back, follows the group with Reshat to the car, apparently filming his abductors close up. Finally Refat’s obsessive searching turned up another shot in which this cameraman’s face, and that of another journalist working with him, is visible.

In 2015 the British TV documentary series Unreported World produced a short film to try to uncover these journalists’ identities. The film resulted in one lead to a Spanish journalist, which however turned out to be false.

Refat and the family’s lawyer Emil Kurbedinov believe new evidence these journalists may possess could help reopen a case. Because the investigation was into murder, instead of murder with abduction (a category in Russian law) the three individuals seen in the existing footage taking Reshat away are legally considered witnesses and not suspects.

“The investigator couldn’t get anywhere near them,” Refat said. “There were some kind of people and that’s all; they were there and then they weren’t; it’s a fairytale of course, like the car was there and then it wasn’t.”

“It ends up that they didn’t abduct [Reshat], except that’s absurd,” he added.

Olya Skrypnyk, deputy head of the Crimean Human Rights Field Mission, said that a separate investigation into abduction should have been opened. “We know there are people who are in the video, and we know the investigator says they are members of the self defence who are responsible for keeping public order, and so they decided to temporarily remove [Reshat]. But the case contents show that it’s abduction,” she said.

Skrypnyk said the murder investigation procedure should also have treated the three men from the self defence militia as participants or accessories, leaving the court to decide on their degree of involvement. “But the investigation never even reaches this point,” she said. “The investigation is protecting the suspects. They will never come to court even if a murder suspect is found.”

Possible new evidence from the cameraman shown filming could change that. “Then we’d really be able to see who did it, and that they are abductors,” said Refat.

He and Kurbedinov both called on the journalists to come forward. “Why do they keep silent, where are those video files?” asked Kurbedinov. “They should carry out their professional duty and produce these recordings.”

The Ametov case, according to Skrypnyk, is one of three major cases in post-annexation Crimea showing manipulation of evidence and procedure (the others concern the murder of Ukrainian army officer Stanislav Karachevsky in April 2014, and the trial of Aleksandr Kostenko, a pro-Ukrainian activist charged with injuring a riot policeman in Kyiv in February 2014). Meanwhile numerous international human rights organisations have issued damning reports of human rights violations in Crimea since Russian annexation.

Many of the violations, which include house searches, detentions and charges of ‘extremism’, and disappearances, are directed against Crimean Tatars, who make up about 12 percent of the Crimean population and who largely boycotted the March 2014 referendum to join Russia. This entire ethnic group was deported in 1944 just after the Soviet Red Army had liberated Crimea from German occupation; the deportation and next few years in exile wiped out an estimated 46 percent of the nation. Refat and Reshat Ametov’s grandfather was a decorated Red Army reconnaissance officer who went into exile with his family, and Refat and Reshat were born in central Asia.

The Crimean Tatars were allowed to come back from the late 1980s, but faced many challenges to resettling. Before March 2014 Reshat had belonged to a working group which promoted Crimean Tatar rights in Crimea. He had been pushing the local village council to implement a Ukrainian decree which granted Muslims a separate plot for burials.

“He wasn’t involved in politics, but he really cared about things,” said Refat. “He never wanted to fight; he always wanted to do everything by law.”

Reshat had told his brother about his plan to protest the Russian occupation. “I understood how dangerous it was; I said no, it’s too late,” his brother recalled.

On Friday February 28 2014 Reshat put a post on his facebook page: ‘Going on Monday to the Cabinet of Ministers to stand in protest. Have you got the guts???’

That was his verdict and his death sentence, says Refat. “He understood that there was no support anywhere. He wrote his last phrase, and went.”

Refat believes his brother’s silent one-man protest, which he carried out as soon as Lenin square was opened again after several days of complete closure, was motivated by his desire to see legal justice done. “I’m sure he stood there just because he was convinced he had a right to. Why didn’t he have a right to be there? He’d always had that right, on any day…”

Refat repeatedly returns to his brother’s love of justice and his solitary action, with the same obsessiveness with which he has watched those hours of footage showing Reshat in front of the soldiers before he is taken away. “Only my brother took action. He was alone, the only one who went out,” he said. “They say Don Quixote fought with windmills. It was something like that. And in reality, no one else did it except him.”

While Russian media dubbed the Russian soldiers who took over the peninsula ‘polite people’, human rights reports single out the self defence militias for especial censure. According to the Crimean Human Rights Field Mission, since March 2014 they have been involved in the abduction, harassment and torture of Crimean Tatars, journalists and 20 Ukrainian activists; attacks on non-Moscow Patriarchy Orthodox churches; searches of mosques and madrassas, and raids on commercial buildings and businesses.

The Field  Mission notes evidence of force in the disappearance of at least nine other people in Crimea since March 2014.  In two cases, witnesses saw the men – Crimean Tatars – being forced into vehicles and driven away by people in uniform. None of these cases have been solved.

Meanwhile the Russian-backed Crimean authorities have proposed several laws and amendments to legalise the self defence militias and exempt their actions from liability. The militias now have the status of a state public institution, in practice directly subordinate to Crimean head Sergei Aksyonov, who has distributed medals and certificates for ‘faithful performance of duty in protecting public order’.

“For over a year, not a single member of the self defence has been called to account for anything,” said Skrypnyk. “Instead, they receive thanks and awards.”

Skrypnyk, from Crimea but now based in Kyiv, says that monitoring human rights on the peninsula, which she calls “a theatre of the absurd,” is increasingly difficult. “When we’re asked to give any kind of evaluation of the situation as lawyers or human rights activists we can’t, because it’s outside of any recognisable human rights framework,” she said. “It’s outside the framework of any kind of legislation, it’s outside even Russian legislation.”

In this context, Refat Ametov’s dogged pursuit of justice can seem as Quixotic as his brother’s one-man protest. He and Kurbedinov are currently waiting to be granted access to the suspended investigation files, which number thousands of pages. “I’ve already lost a year. I haven’t been earning anything; I don’t know what I’m living on,” Refat said, when asked how he found time for his investigation.

But he has no thoughts of giving up, wherever the investigation leads. “It’ll be deeper and more difficult information; it’s hard for me to even think about it,” he said. “But whatever I find out can’t be any more terrible. I just don’t know what I’ll do with what I find out. I don’t know what will happen then.”

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