Free From Russian Custody, Crimean Tatar Leader Vows To Fight On

Crimean Tatar leader Akhtem Chiygoz has vowed to press on with his fight to end the detainment of political prisoners in Russia and the annexed region of Crimea less than a day after his own release.

"The conditions for the fight have changed, and I continued my fight while in prison. I am confident that now I will have more opportunities for that fight," Chiygoz told RFE/RL on October 26.

In a deal brokered by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Chiygoz and another Crimean Tatar leader, Ilmi Umerov, were released from Russian custody in Crimea on October 25 and flown to Turkey.

Chiygoz and Umerov were handed prison sentences by Russian-controlled courts in September, after trials that rights groups said were part of a campaign of pressure against Crimean Tatars and others who opposed Moscow's takeover of the peninsula in 2014.

Erdogan has pledged to support the Turkic-speaking, Muslim Crimean Tatar minority even as he has cultivated closer ties with Moscow.

"Our release is a serious breakthrough by Ukraine and Turkey. For me it was an unexpected event, because I actually was ready to serve eight years in prison."

"It was a big surprise for me to learn that we were flying to Turkey," he said, adding that he and Umerov would be "in our homeland, in Kyiv, today."

Crimean Tatar leader Refat Chubarov said later that their arrival in the Ukrainian capital was postponed until October 27.

Ruslan Balbek, deputy chief of the Russian parliamentary committee for nationalities, said that the Muslim mufti in Crimea, Emirali Ablayev, had asked President Vladimir Putin to pardon Umerov and Chiygoz.

However, relatives of Chiygoz and Umerov told RFE/RL that they had not asked Ablayev to do so, and supporters of the two men also said they had not sought pardons -- a sensitive issue because Russian officials say a pardon requires an admission of guilt.

Relatives said they had asked Ablayev to intervene on Chiygoz's behalf once in 2015, when his pretrial detention was being decided, but that Ablayev refused to help.

Many Crimean Tatars consider Ablayev a collaborator with the Russian occupying administration.

The European Union called the release of the two men "good news" and demanded the immediate release of "all illegally detained Ukrainian citizens on the Crimean Peninsula and in Russia."

Rights groups and Western governments had condemned the convictions, calling their trials part of a campaign of pressure and abuse conducted by Russia since it occupied and seized control of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Kremlin critics say that Russia has targeted Crimean Tatars for oppression and abuse since the takeover of the Black Sea peninsula, which followed the ouster of Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych by throngs of protesters in Kyiv.

Chiygoz was convicted of organizing an illegal demonstration and sentenced to eight years in prison on September 11 after what Amnesty International called a "sham trial."

Umerov was convicted of separatism on September 27 after a trial that Human Rights Watch called "ruthless retaliation" for his opposition to Moscow's takeover of the peninsula. He was sentenced to two years in a type of penitentiary called a colony settlement.

Nikolai Polozov, a lawyer for Chiygoz, told RFE/RL that all charges against Chiygoz and Umerov have been dropped.

Erdogan has said that Turkey considers Crimea part of Ukraine and will continue to pay close attention to the plight of the Crimean Tatars, a Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim minority whose members were largely opposed to the Russian takeover.

Russia seized Crimea in March 2014, sending in troops and staging a referendum denounced as illegal by dozens of countries.

Both Umerov and Chiygoz are deputy chairmen of the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar self-governing body, which Russian authorities deemed extremist and outlawed in what rights groups and Western governments said was part of a persistent campaign of oppression targeting Crimean Tatars and other citizens who opposed Moscow's takeover.

Umerov, who suffers from diabetes and Parkinson's disease, was confined to a psychiatric hospital in August 2016, a decision condemned by Human Rights Watch as "an egregious violation of his rights."

In March, the European Parliament called on Russia to free more than 30 Ukrainian citizens it said were in prison or other conditions of restricted freedom in Russia, Crimea, and parts of eastern Ukraine that are controlled by Russia-backed separatists. Most of them remain in custody.