Moscow said to be trying to scare activists into submission over annexation, with growing numbers disappearing

Human rights activists have warned of a worsening campaign of harassment in Crimea against Crimean Tatars, including political apprehends, trials and kidnappings.

Crimean Tatars lived in the area for centuries before it was settled by either Russians or Ukrainians, but now make up only about 13% of Crimeas population. During Russias 2014 annexation of the region, the Crimean Tatars largely boycotted the hastily organised referendum, and community leaders called for Crimea to remain part of Ukraine.

Two-and-a-half years later, Crimean Tatar activists accuse the Russians of trying to scare them into submission.

In a column for the Guardian, Crimean Tatar activist Ayder Muzhdadbayev, said: There are no barbed-wire fencings in this new hybrid ghetto of Vladimir Putins yet. Instead of wire there is hate-filled TV propaganda, total surveillance and constant harassment.

With each pas week, there are new reports of Crimean Tatars detained, questioned or simply disappeared.

They have already realised that they cant get Crimean Tatars to love the authorities concerned, so instead the chore now is to silence them said Ilmi Umerov, by telephone from Bakhchisarai in Crimea. If they are scared, they wont speak, they wont voice their grievances, and they wont holler that Crimea is Ukraine.

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Ilmi Umerov. Photograph: Vasily Maximov/ AFP/ Getty Images

Umerov was the mayor of Bakhchisarai, the historical capital of the Crimean Tatars, for nine years before the Russian annexation. He remained on for the first few months after the Russian takeover but then stepped down, saying he could not serve an occupying regime. That was when his problems genuinely started.

He has been accused by authorities of separatism, a charge that potentially carries a jail word, for public statements that Crimea is an example of Ukraine. In August, national courts in Crimeas capital, Simferopol, ordered him to undergo psychiatric evaluation. He spent three weeks locked up in a psychiatry ward, and still faces a trial at some point.

Tanya Cooper, Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch, called Umerovs treatment a shameful attempt to use psychiatry to silence him and tarnish his reputation, a popular practise against protesters in the Soviet Union.

Some Crimean Tatars have gone over to work with the Russians, either out of conviction or from a faith that with Russia apparently in Crimea for the long haul, receiving some way to work with the authorities concerned is the best option. Of the community leaders who remained opposed to Russian rule, most have been either banned from entering the region, such as the long-standing Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev, who is now are stationed in Kiev, or had criminal charges launched against them.

Another community leader, Akhtem Chiygoz, is on trial in Simferopol for disturbances that occurred during the annexation period, when pro-Russia forces-out clashed with Crimean Tatars activists and two people succumbed. Witness say Chiygoz was trying to calm the crowds.

I think hes a hostage and its necessary for the Kremlin to have a show trial, to make sure the dangers of protesting are clear, said Nikolai Polozov, Chiygozs lawyer.

Although the disturbances occurred during a hour when, even according to Russia, Crimea was still part of Ukraine, Russia has passed a law in which crimes from the Ukrainian period can now be tried under Russian law. The amendment goes totally against international law, according to Polozov.

For other Crimean Tatars, there is a constant sense of fear something bad could happen at any time, especially to those who make their voices heard. Crimean Tatars report frequent visits from Russian security service agents offering a peaceful existence in exchange for informing on the community.

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A rally in Kiev in May to celebrate the 72 nd anniversary of the deportation of Crimean Tatars in 1944. Photo: NurPhoto/ Getty Images

In May, activist Ervin Ibragimov disappeared in Bakhchisarai, with security camera footage from the incident appearing to show he was bundled into a traffic police car. He has not been heard from since.

I dont know why it happened, but Im certain it had to be officials or people linked to them involved, said his father, Umer Ibragimov, by telephone from Bakhchisarai. He said his son had noticed people following him in the days before the kidnapping.

Crimeas chief prosecutor, Natalia Poklonskaya, suggested people may have dressed up as traffic police officers as a provocation to make the authorities concerned in Crimea look bad and destabilise the situation.

Since the Russian takeover, all independent media outlets in the peninsula have closed down, most notably the Crimean Tatar channel ATR, which broadcast news throughout the annexation that did not chime with the Russian version of events. It was denied registration last year by Crimean authorities.

The Crimean Tatars are not the only people being repressed in Crimea, but the reason they feature so prominently is because they are the only remaining compact population which is still not loyal to the Russians, and the only ones who are there to voice their opposition and their dissent, said Krasimir Yankov of Amnesty International, who recently travelled to the region.

For Umerov, life under Russian regulation seems deep unjust, especially as the entire Crimean Tatar community expended more than four decades in exile in central Asia, having been deported en masse by Joseph Stalin for alleged collaboration with the Nazis during the second world war. After decades of waiting and dreaming, they were finally permitted to return in 1989.

But even if he aimed up going to prison, he said , nothing could convince him to leave Crimea again. Crimea is my homeland, we fought for years to return here after being deported and there are absolutely no circumstances in which I would leave Crimea voluntarily. Full stop.

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