Persecution and enforced disappearances of Crimean Tatars continue on the Ukrainian territories occupied by the Russian army

On April 4, 2022, the Graty news agency reported the arrest of Rustem Gugurik, a Crimean Tatar from the Kherson region. The FSB accuses him of participating in the Crimean Tatar volunteer battalion, which has long been gone.

On the evening of March 27, Rustem left the village of Novoalekseevka, Kherson region, with his wife and 6-year-old daughter and went to Crimea. In peaceful times, this Crimean Tatar with many children worked as a taxi driver, taking people to Chongar and back. This time, due to the Russian invasion, he tried to take his family to their relatives in Crimea, but was detained by border guards at a checkpoint. He was accused of involvement in the Crimean Tatar volunteer detachment named after Noman Chelebidzhikhan, which Russia recognizes as an illegal armed formation. For that he faces a term of 8 to 15 years. Gugurik does not have any previous criminal record.

Rustem’s wife said that at the time of detention she was with her husband. She was not interrogated and was even offered to return back to Novoalekseevka. But she decided to accompany her husband: “We arrived at the checkpoint. At first we were detained for two days, but we sat there for 58 hours without food. We had a small child with us – our daughter is only 6 years old. We didn’t eat anything, just drank water. Friends wanted to pass us some food, but they were told that it’s not necessary, that we had everything. Then, in front of the child, they simply took away her father. She burst into tears. We were told that he was detained until the circumstances were clarified. When I asked why my husband was taken away, they answered: “So there is a reason for it…” I said that I would stay there until they let my husband go. My husband told me that he was taken to five different offices. There they told him to tell everything, but he did not understand what they were talking about. He is accused of participating in a battalion he knows nothing about.”

The battalion named after Noman Chelebidzhikhan was created by the participants of the “Crimea Civil Blockade” campaign, who advocated for the termination of trade communications with Crimea and blocked checkpoints in September of 2015. Some utility poles holding power lines to Crimea were blown up at that time in the Kherson region. Russian law enforcement officers regarded this as a sabotage and accused, among others, the members of the battalion. The battalion was never registered, and the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine refused to give it an official status. Its founder, businessman Lenur Islyamov, insists that the battalion was never a military unit, and after being denied registration, it was transformed into the public association “Asker”. Russian authorities in Crimea repeatedly detained and tried local residents for their participation in the battalion.

Tatyana Pechonchik, head of the ZMINA Human Rights Centre, says that her organisation has documented 91 cases of disappearances of people in the Ukrainian territories seized by Russia since February 24. According to the human rights activist, these cases involve local activists, representatives of local governments, journalists, volunteers and others. Among these people, 46 were missing or captured, 43 were released and two were found dead. The ZMINA centre claims that the majority of missing or illegally detained people among documented cases are from the Kherson region, where the fate of at least 20 active members of local communities is still unknown. At least 12 people whose enforced disappearances were documented come from the Zaporozhye region.