Posts Tagged 'Russia'

When will there be good news?

Good news coming out of Russian-annexed Crimea is very relative, and even more short-lived.

On 25 January there was some good news from Crimea. Relatively. The Kyiv district court in Simferopol refused to extend the pre-trial prison term of Redvan Suleimanov, arrested in July 2016 on very unconvincing charges of sabotage. He would have to be released by the end of January because the investigation had failed to provide materials within the required seven days of the previous detention term’s expiry.

So you understand why this is good news in Crimea these days: under a regime which makes it abundantly clear that anyone can be arrested and sentenced, regardless of any truth of what they did or didn’t do, no one arrested on politicised charges of extremism or terrorism or sabotage or mass unrest has been found innocent. No one, once taken into pre-trial detention on these charges, has been released on bail or even house arrest. Around twenty people accused of such offences have been held in the horrible conditions of pre-trial prison for a year or more. They have not been allowed visits from their families. Two have been removed to prison in Moscow. The family of another Ukrainian arrested for sabotage in November didn’t know which prison he was in at all for over a month after he was arrested.

Suleimanov’s lawyer Emil Kurbedinov, who represents the majority of Crimean Tatars arrested in Crimea for ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’, reported the good news about his client on social media. On 26 January, the next day, he reported a house search by the FSB (Russian security services) of another Crimean Tatar activist.

On his way to the house, and while his own house was also being searched, Kurbedinov was arrested himself. He was charged with ‘public display or propaganda of banned symbols’, for a post on social media from 2012-13 (long before Russia annexed Crimea), and sentenced to ten days administrative arrest.

So relative is good news in Crimea these days, where anyone can be sentenced for anything, this honestly felt like a kind of good news. It is awful news, the arrest of the most prominent lawyer (out of a very small group) defending Crimean Tatars and others. But –  only ten days. Only administrative. It could have been so much worse.

Friends laughed at my naivety over this, and in welcoming the news about Suleimanov just the day before. Rightly. On 27 January, the same Kyiv district court in Simferopol heard Suleimanov’s case again. Kurbedinov of course, was not there to represent him. In his absence, the court extended Suleimanov’s pre-trial prison term.

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.”

On Alexander Litvinenko

This is from my novel Petrushka set in London in 1907 – about, among other things, Russian secret services operating in Britain, and a relationship between a double agent and his handler. I started writing it in about 2008; it’s based largely on historical events at the turn of the 20th century.

I think I’m posting this particular extract because this strange sad detail jumped out at me from this account of Litvinenko’s death:  that his MI6 handler apparently had no idea he was even in hospital with poisoning.

(For Okhrana read FSB, for Special Branch read MI6… you get the gist.)

“…I knew what would happen to Neschastny – to Kyril Voronin.”

Gideon wanted to hold Jeannie’s hand, but he hadn’t had a chance to wash his own, and the last person he’d touched had been a lonely megalomaniac wearing most of his guts on his outside. “When the Okhrana put me on to him last year, yes maybe I thought I’d be doing my bit to protect innocent bystanders from bombs… But I know the Okhrana’s reputation. It wasn’t information they wanted anymore from him. What they wanted was trust.”

By then agent Neschastny had become a liability, likely to break down and confess all. The Okhrana did not want him, and neither did Special Branch once it became clear he had nothing useful to tell about his comrades or his masters. “They just needed him to feel he was still important, still protected – and that was my job. To become his friend.”

Because that was what Gideon Thwaite did. Even when he’d been a regular copper, he hadn’t just moved on vagrants and fished out suicides, had he; he’d made friends with them first. Yorkshireman Thwaite, the maverick joke at Special Branch with his peculiar relationships with riffraff and revolutionists; the even-tempered eccentric no one could help but like.

“And did he?”

“Did he what?”

“Become your friend.”

That was his Jeannie: straight to the point. What was the last thing he had ever said to Neschastny? He had already given the order by then, to call off his men who shadowed the Russian day and night. The Okhrana had made no enquiry about their agent for weeks; the commissioner had blinked his habitual blind eye long enough to ask a pointed question about Thwaite’s interesting assignment of manpower. Thwaite had already known when he had said, mostly reluctantly, “It’s a dangerous game you’re playing. Don’t get killed, will you.”

“I won’t.” Neschastny had smiled a crooked smile. “I still have one thing left to live for.”

And the man had lied, because he was an informer and what informers do is lie; days later he had got himself killed by a Russian state assassin on British soil in scandalously public fashion.

And did he become your friend?

Gideon stared at his hands. “Yes, he did.”

“Poor him.”

“Yes.”

Curiouser and curiouser

The first day of Spring, and a cold wind blowing in Chisinau, Moldova.

News is still coming in about opposition politician Boris Nemtsov’s murder in Russia beneath the Kremlin’s walls. It’s just over a year since Crimea was invaded by Russian troops that the Kremlin lied about. Two days since the Kremlin declared a national holiday for the Russian special forces that are sustaining a war now in Luhansk and Donetsk in east Ukraine, and that created one 23 years ago on the right bank of the river Dnistr that split Moldova before it even had a chance to be one country.

In Chisinau, the morning streets are lined with stalls selling red and white crocheted amulets – bells, flowers, hearts, suns. It’s Martisor today, a spring holiday based on ancient myths spread across this region, about blood and snow and rebirth.

“I don’t know,” says my taxi driver, when I ask what the festival is about. “It isn’t my holiday. I’m not Moldovan.”

Sergei – let’s call him that – says he’s Ukrainian (almost every taxi driver I’ve encountered so far has been Ukrainian). He left Luhansk years ago to live here; his father is Moldovan. I say he’s lucky he left Luhansk long before the war started; he shrugs and says, “It’s not so great here. Everyone I know has left or is leaving.”

Life is visibly very hard in Moldova; not enough work, horribly low salaries and pensions. Sergei lists his friends who have gone to seek work in Canada, England, Ireland, Germany… He himself wants to go to Russia. “I’d be comfortable there. It’s all familiar, I know the language. I never managed to learn Moldovan, it’s not that I couldn’t, but… I feel comfortable in Russian.” He tells me about a friend living now in Germany, and how she doesn’t like that everything there is not like in Russian-speaking Moldova. “Even the way they visit each other at home is different,” he says, with a sort of resigned, vaguely surprised disapproval.

He asks me if it’s true that it rains all the time in England. “I couldn’t live in a rainy country,” he says, and rhapsodises about the joy of sunshine in Spring, which is a joy common to all of us.

Russian popsa is playing on the radio; if I asked him to switch to a news station it would be in Russian, of course, and it would be listing, in that important voice of supressed excitement that Russian newscasters have perfected, the numerous ridiculous theories about who murdered Nemtsov, and Putin would be abusing the word ‘provocation’ and offering condolences to Nemtsov’s mother who just days earlier warned her son he was likely to be killed. Outside, Moldovans are buying pretty red and white knitted amulets to celebrate spring, in another world as far as Sergei is concerned here in his closed Russian-language information bubble.

It isn’t just closed to him by a language barrier, it’s closed by his lack of interest, motivation or curiosity. He doesn’t speak Moldovan, he doesn’t speak English. He doesn’t have to, there are dozens of Russian TV channels here to choose from, there are thousands of Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians, he may not have bothered to learn Moldovan but most Moldovans have bothered to learn Russian.

It’s very easy to stay snug in his information bubble, protected from a big bad world that doesn’t have a place for him. It’s much easier to retreat as he is told all the time that he is under imminent threat of attack from all sides, and yet is part of a unassailably great Russian-speaking empire.

It’s human nature to want what is familiar,what makes us comfortable, and god knows life is so hard for people here they could be forgiven for wanting to hide from it (god knows there are enough British people without that excuse, buying villas in Romania or Moldova without ever developing the slightest interest in those countries’ culture and language, god knows it’s a great British tradition…)

But it’s also human nature to be curious (isn’t it?)

The Soviet system killed curiosity. It spread a whole population of incurious monolinguists from Sakhalin to Chisinau who just want to be comfortable speaking Russian and are prepared to fight and to lie about who is fighting so that they can remain comfortable and ignorant.

Sergei is in his twenties. That’s the age when you’re supposed to want to see the world, learn new things, collect experiences. Somehow, Sergei and thousands like him have been denied that desire, not by an iron curtain across a continent but by something worse: an iron curtain inside their heads.

I never really understood the saying ‘curiosity killed the cat’, but it might have been invented by Stalin or by Putin. Incuriosity kills tolerance. Kills development. Kills plurality, self-awareness, critical thinking, empathy, honesty – and even the small joys in life, like learning the weird and wonderful rules of hospitality in other countries. Like knowing what those red and white amulets are for, and being able to join in a celebration of Spring, which is universal to all of us.

moldova martisor

Before the war

People here are desperate for company. No one visits these rebel-held towns in east Ukraine anymore, except Russians who’ve come to fight. Friends and even relatives have stopped calling, because they are on the other side of the battle lines, or because they got lost for good in the middle of the battle.

My driver from Luhansk thawed from thinking I was at worst a spy, at best a liability, to inviting me home for lunch and telling me half his life story. His life these last six months, a chaos of family divisions and three jobs at once, none of them paid.

Six months ago he was driving a nice new van, delivering medications for patients on kidney dialysis throughout Luhansk region. Now he’s driving a beat-up Zhiguli, and unless they leave for Ukrainian-held territory the dialysis patients are going to die in two weeks time when the last medications run out.

My first driver, the day before when I asked him to pick me up, was extricating himself from a road accident with a drunk militant.

In former lives, just six months ago, these people had more or less-stable lives; were directors of companies; mine foremen, doctors. It is like the 1990s all over again, when the woman selling boxes of matches and single cigarettes on the street corner was a nuclear physicist in a just-former life.

Life before the war. Before the war, when no one realised how good life was.

“I can’t get used to saying it,” says Ira in Gorlivka, pouring out home-made wine at 9am to celebrate actually having a visitor. The breakfast pancakes are made with water; she can’t afford milk. She hasn’t been paid for her job as a kindergarten teacher since June; she spends her days calming children who run to hide whenever there is a bang or a crash. “We all learned that toast as children: ‘peace and understanding’, and it never meant anything to us before…”

Nikolay and Aleksey from the technical college in Gorlivka had modest, manageable enough dreams before the war: to move on to further study in Dnipropetrovsk or Kharkiv, to get a job. Now their dreams have dwindled to an imaginary country called ‘Novorossiya’ that they don’t really believe in anymore.

“There are no prospects here,” says Aleksey; no future in this place that’s harder and harder to get out of and where no one comes to visit.

Aleksey’s best friend and Nikolay’s cousin have both stopped calling; they might never come back again. They are in the Ukrainian army, fighting against ‘Novorossiya’.

“There’s a problem with the phone connection. He can’t call so often anymore,” says Nikolay about his cousin. “He’s got no choice.” There is a difficult pause. “We really hope that the ones in the Ukrainian army aren’t there by choice.”

The boys fall quiet. We listen to the missing calls, the silent phone lines, the absent visitors who once made toasts to peace, the voices of those who will never come home.

Journey

Three hours to travel what should be less than fifty kilometres, north of Donetsk. The main road is closed because of shelling; instead we drive along terrible roads through flat yellow and black fields; villages that no one ever usually drives through; mines and factories frozen by years of neglect, months of war. Autumn, already cold, everything dying. Smell of burning fields, leaves, houses.

“When we moved here from Russia, my father told me to say goodbye to hills,” my neighbour on the bus tells me as we look out at the giant, rose-coloured pyramids of slag heaps. “I remember that every time I see those heaps. Donbas hills”.

That was over forty years ago. Since then she married a local man, had children, put down roots. This is her landscape now; her land that she wanted to love and defend and improve when she voted for the DNR – the Donetsk People’s Republic – in May.

Now she and her husband are coming back from a two-day trip to transfer their pensions, unpaid for three months, out of DNR-held Makiivka to Ukraine-controlled Konstantinovka. The time they didn’t spend on the bus, they spent queuing at the post office, the bank, the local administration. “Forty years working, and for what?” she asks. For her to vote to live in a different country. For her to be secure in her old age. For her children to have better future.

One of her children upped sticks just before the war started, she tells me; sold his house and moved to Russia to try and make a new, successful life. Now he is on his way back to Makiivka, defeated yet again by too high prices, too little work, not being Russian enough.

She shows me photos on her phone, not of her children but of the flowers she grows in her garden. Dahlias, snapdragons, fat dewy roses. “When I get tired of human nature, I look at these and feel refreshed.”

It’s hard not to be tired of human nature, right now in Donbas. We stare out together at the strangely beautiful, defeated landscape. She points out to me a white heron fishing in a river. At a railway crossing, a man patiently waits with his cow. Destroyed electricity pylons are bowed over like weeping aliens, trailing wires through the acres of sodden sunflower stalks. The people on the bus look out at this land some of them took up arms to defend. They sigh and bow over like the pylons, waiting for this journey to be over.

But what about…

The hypocrisy and duplicity of Russia over its actions in Ukraine actually physically hurts.

Every time someone says to me ‘but it’s all because of those neo-Nazis in Ukraine’, ‘but Maidan did it first’, ‘but Crimea was always Russian’, ‘but if there are Russian soldiers in Ukraine, they are there voluntarily because the locals want them there – and anyway, what about all the Americans there?’ – it’s like being hit over the head with a blunt object.

Every time I hear ‘But what about…. what about… what about…’ from Churkin, from Putin, from Lavrov, I remember that Soviet disease I encountered all the time in state organisations when I first arrived in Post-Soviet Ukraine nearly twenty years ago: lying and evasion and being too scared to take responsibility for anything. I’m not to blame for my bad behaviour, because someone else behaved badly first. Always shift the blame.

I don’t encounter that disease so much any more in Ukraine, though of course it’s not gone. It is clearly still rampant in Russia.

There are brave people in Russia fighting the lies and the hypocrisy. There are human rights representatives and mothers speaking out about their lost sons in the Russian army who were forced to sign papers that they are ‘on leave’ before being sent to Ukraine, who are returning to be buried in unmarked graves.

Please, you people in the rest of the world who keep saying ‘but what about the neo-Nazis…  But what about…’  Well,  WHAT ABOUT THEM?

What about those mothers in Russia searching for their sons? What about all the 45 million or so non Neo-Nazis in Ukraine? What about the fact that two wrongs do not and never will make a right?

 

 


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A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


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