Forgotten Muslims: The tragic fate of Crimean Tatars

Crimean Tatar boys light candles during a memorial ceremony in 2014 marking the 1944 deportation of Tatars from Crimea — Russia has now banned such gatherings. (AFP)
Updated 08 August 2019

Forgotten Muslims: The tragic fate of Crimean Tatars

  • Members of the historically oppressed ethnic minority have been facing renewed persecution since 2014
  • The annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula by the Russian Federation forced thousands of Tatar Muslims from their homes

DUBAI: Five years ago, the Russian Federation annexed the Crimean Peninsula after unmarked troops marched into the Ukrainian territory and took control of the local parliament.

In the first six months of this year, Crimean Tatars who have lived on the peninsula since at least the 15th century, accounted for a disproportionately large majority of the number of arrests — 138 out of 200 — made by Russian Federation authorities.

The figures, released by the Crimean Tatar Resource Center (CTRC), a non-governmental organization, tell only a tiny part of the full story of injustice and harassment to which the community has been subjected since the peninsula’s annexation.

Out of the 73 recorded house searches, 55 were conducted in the homes of the Tatar minority, and out of 69 detentions, 57 were of Crimean Tatars, according to the CTRC. Today, Crimean Tatars cannot enjoy safety and comfort even in their ancestral land. However, they are no strangers to oppression and abuse.


  • The Mejlis, or Congress of the Crimean Tatar People, is the Tatar Muslims’ highest executive representative body.
  • The Congress was founded in 1991 to communicate the community’s grievances to the governments of Ukraine and Crimea, and to international bodies.
  • The Mejlis consists of 33 members and works to promote the rights of Crimean Tatars.
  • The Supreme Court of Russia banned the Mejlis in 2016, calling it an extremist outfit.

In 1944, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin accused the Muslim Tatars of collaborating with Nazi Germany and betraying the country, and ordered their deportation from the peninsula.

In one of the 20th century’s major incidents of collective punishment, Moscow forcibly moved the entire population of about 230,000 to other Soviet states, mostly Uzbekistan. At the time, Crimean Tatars comprised nearly one-fifth of the peninsula’s population.

According to surveys by political activists in the 1960s, more than 46 percent of Crimean Tatars perished due to disease and starvation during the first three years of the deportation.

Most of the population was able to return to Crimea after the collapse of USSR in 1991. Crimean Tatars began to hold ceremonies each May 18 in remembrance of the forced population transfer. However, those gatherings have been banned by the Russian authorities since the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

The takeover of the peninsula followed a military intervention in Crimea that the Russian Federation staged in the wake of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution and unfolded amid widespread unrest across southern and eastern Ukraine.

A referendum organized by Moscow in 2014 ostensibly to determine the status of Crimea was considered illegal by Western powers and boycotted by the Crimean Tatars. According to the CTRC, the annexation forced more than 20,000 Crimean Tatars from their homes as the Russian Federation sent 200,000 nationals to live on the peninsula.

Human-rights groups say the persecution of the Crimean Tatars, who number about 300,000 today, has continued since the 2014 status referendum. It takes the form not only of arrests, searches and imprisonment, but also of attempts to tamper with their culture and history, according to the groups.

Some activists accuse the Russia Federation of falsifying the history of the Crimean Tatars to justify the persecution of the population. “During this academic year, it was discovered that a tenth grade textbook said the Crimean Tatars collaborated with Nazi Germany,” said Eskender Bariiev, CTRC’s chairman, told Arab News.

There was an outcry over the textbook, with Crimean Tatars filing multiple complaints that compelled the Russian authorities to remove it from the educational system, according to Bariiev.

The activists also say Russian Federation authorities are seeking to change the Crimean Tatars’ ethnonym, that is the name given to a specific ethnic group. Among the controversial replacements for “Crimean Tatars” being floated are Tatars, Tatar diaspora, Tatar minority or Tatars of Crimea, Bariiev said.

He said the Russian Federation authorities are trying to avoid acknowledging the fact that Crimean Tatars are an indigenous people of Crimea by using of all kinds of artifices. For instance, the Supreme Court of Russia banned the Mejlis — the representative body of the Crimean Tatars — on charges of extremism in 2016.

Speaking at a session of the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Bariiev said the Russian Federation’s actions violated the right of indigenous peoples to manage representative institutions guaranteed by UN declarations.

Aside from the Mejlis, Crimea’s new administrators have banned a number of Crimean Tatar Muslim associations and groups and prosecuted their members.  

A CTRC report said 42 out of the 60 Ukrainian political prisoners illegally held on Russian territory are members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international political organization that seeks to “unite Muslims under one Islamic caliphate.”

At the same time, a number of Crimean Tatar activists have been banned from entering the peninsula, some for up to 30-50 years. One of them is the CTRC’s Bariiev, who has not been allowed to return to his homeland since 2015.

One of the reasons the court cited in his case was the threat allegedly posed to the public by a body he helped set up. In 2014, along with others Bariiev formed a committee whose stated objective is to protect the rights of Crimean Tatars.

Human-rights groups say the persecution of the Crimean Tatars has continued since the 2014 referendum

Another prominent Tatar Muslim who is banned from entering Crimea is Mustafa Dzhemilov, a former chairman of the Mejlis and a member of Ukraine’s parliament. He is one of those who experienced first-hand the community’s forced exile in Uzbekistan.

Dzhemilov said he was prevented from majoring in Arabic language in Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, due to his ethnicity.

“One of the admissions committee members told me they do not accept Crimean Tatars and recommended that I don’t waste my time and just join a different department,” Dzhemilov told Arab News.

He believes the authorities branded the Mejlis an extremist outfit because the Crimean Tatars’ representative body has refused to recognize Russian sovereignty over the Crimean Peninsula.

US intelligence reports in 2019 showed that the Russia Federation has deployed troops, aircraft and weapons in the disputed region. Satellite images enabled Defense One, a US publication, to identify five S-400 batteries, five S-300 air-defense systems and fighter jets at four different locations.

A US intelligence official was quoted by Defense One as saying that the Russian Federation is engineering “a deliberate and systematic build-up” of its forces on the peninsula. Russian border control also denied access to UN observers to Crimean territory, according to a recent Facebook post of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine.

The Russian Federation intends to heavily militarize the peninsula, hence it needs to fill the area with loyalists, Dzhemilov told Arab News.



AS IT HAPPENED: Davos 2020 Day One - Thunberg slams elites, Trump hails US economic rebound

Updated 34 min 5 sec ago

AS IT HAPPENED: Davos 2020 Day One - Thunberg slams elites, Trump hails US economic rebound

  • Discussion panels featuring a number of high profile figures from the political, business and civil world.
  • Environment and climate issues on agenda, but Iran and Lebanon expected to feature heavily

The World Economic Forum 2020 started on Tuesday in Davos in Switzerland. Greta Thunberg kicked off the three-day forum in a panel discussion on Sustainable Path towards a Common Future, while Donald Trump was in bullish mood during his special address.

There were the usual array of discussion panels featuring a number of high profile figures from the political, business and civil world, discussing a wide range of subjects including the environment and climate issues, with Iran and Lebanon featuring heavily.

Follow Arab News’ coverage of the opening day below

17:30 - As the opening day winds down, we can start to look ahead toward Wednesday and what's on the agenda. Musician, producer and entrepreneur was looking around Davos today ahead of his session on Wednesday. Pakistan's prime minister Imran Khan and the UK's Charles, Prince of Wales will be the highlights of tomorrow's special addresses. Plus all the usual panels, sessions and debates we have come to expect from the World Economic Forum. See you tomorrow...

16:45 - Missed some of today's big Arab stories from Davos? You can read the highlights in the articles below, or check out Arab News' dedicated spotlight here...


Saudi minister sees tech-savvy youth help the region return to growth

Former Arab League chief: youth driving Middle East change against bad governments

Arab states work with the world but not with each other, Davos hears

Maryam Forum launched at Davos to promote leadership expertise


16:00 - Don't forget that Arab News will be covering the World Economic Forum right here at throughout the week's events. Arab News will even have a print presence in Davos as well, beautifully displayed here by our intrepid reporter Frank Kane...

15:00 - Andrew Liveris, a member of the board of directors of Saudi Aramco, was speaking on a panel about the growth of green energies this afternoon - saying the transition from fossil fuels to low-carbon sources was essential, but that energy companies had to be allowed to manage their own transitions...

13:45 - Bollywood superstar and mental health ambassador Deepika Padukone has a very honest and inspiring conversation with World Health Organization's director-general about her own experiences with mental illness and how the stigma surrounding it can be ended...

In 2017, Padukone spoke vividly about her struggle with depression and the stigma that surrounded it. She also described how she decided to speak out, so others wouldn't have to suffer in the same way she did. Watch the Crystal Awardee speaking earlier at Davos:

13:00 - Saudi Arabia's Minister for Communications and IT Abdullah Al-Swaha has been speaking on a panel about the strategic outlook for Middle East economies. He makes the salient point that if countries want their economies to grow, they must focus on youth, technology and the empowerment of women...

11:30 - US President Donald Trump reverted to his role as salesman Tuesday, telling a gathering of the world's top businessmen in the Swiss Alps that he's led a “spectacular” turnaround of the US economy and encouraged them to invest in America.

He reminded the audience that when he spoke here two years ago, early in his presidency, “I told you that we had launched the great American comeback."

“Today I’m proud to declare the United States is in the midst of an economic boom, the likes of which the world has never seen before,” the president said.

Read more of the US President's address at Davos here: Trump lauds US economy in Davos, says little on climate woes

11:00 - Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson delivered a special message from Pope Francis. He called on everyone to remember that we are all members of one human family, and that we have a moral obligation to care for one another.

And he asked for a renewed ethical approach in the forthcoming discussions, including in the discipline of economics.

10:30 - The historian Yuval Noah Harari struck a pessimistic note at the opening of this session on the technology arms race. 

"On the most shallow level it could be a repeat of the 19thcentury industrial revolution, when the leaders had the chance to dominate the world economically and politically... I understand the current arms race as an imperial arms race... You don't need to send the soldiers in if you have all the data on a country," says Harari.

10:00 - In one of the first sessions of the WEF, Greta Thunberg said the voices of science and youth need to be at the center of the conversations on environment and future during “Forging a Sustainable Path towards a Common Future” panel discussion. 

Read more on her speech hereThunberg condemns climate inaction as Trump joins Davos