Osman Arifmemetov, an ethnic Crimean Tatar freelance journalist, is serving a 14-year prison sentence after being convicted on charges of terrorism and of “preparation for a violent seizure of power,” in connection with his reporting on alleged human rights abuses by Russian authorities in Crimea. Russian authorities detained him in March 2019 in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don along with another Crimean journalist, Remzi Bekirov. Another journalist, Rustem Sheikhaliev, was detained the same day in Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, and sentenced along with Arifmemetov to 14 years in jail on the same charges. Bekirov was handed a 19-year sentence in March 2022.
Arifmemetov, Bekirov, and Sheikhaliev livestreamed raids and trials and posted the videos on the YouTube channel of Crimean Solidarity, which assists Crimean political prisoners by publicizing their prosecution and advocating for their release, according to the group’s website. The group uses the YouTube channel and social media to post videos from trials and home raids of Crimean Tatars, according to Krym.Realii (Crimea Realities), a Crimea-focused outlet run by the Ukrainian-language service of the U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and a CPJ review of the videos on the channel and on the group’s Facebook page.
Arifmemetov also interviewed family members and lawyers of Crimean Tatar activists detained by Russia, according to Krym.Realii and a video on Crimean Solidarity’s YouTube page that includes clips from the three journalists’ reports.
Russia has enforced its laws in Crimea since it annexed the peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014, including imposing substantial restrictions on media freedom, according to Freedom House’s 2022 Freedom in the World report. The number of media outlets in Crimea was reduced by more than 90 percent under a 2015 reregistration process overseen by Roskomnadzor, and Russian authorities have restricted access to Ukrainian television and other media outlets, according to Freedom House. Since taking control, Russian authorities have systematically prosecuted journalists and activists who questioned the annexation.
Many Crimean Tatar activists who opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea were put on trial on terrorism-related charges, according to Krym.Realii, Human Rights Watch (HRW), and U.K.-based news website OpenDemocracy. Russia has a track record of using terrorism and extremism laws to silence critics and muzzle independent news coverage.
On March 27, 2019, officers of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), Interior Ministry, and the National Guard raided the home of Arifmemetov—as well as the homes of nearly two dozen other ethnic Crimean Tatars, most of them linked to Crimean Solidarity—in Simferopol and several districts in Crimea, according to reports by Grani and Krym.Realii.
Arifmemetov, who was not home at the time of the raid, was detained later that day along with Bekirov in a café in Rostov-on-Don, according to Bekirov’s employer, the independent local news website Grani, a statement by the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG), an independent human rights organization based in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, and a Facebook post by Crimean Solidarity.
After being detained, Arifmemetov and Bekirov were beaten to the point at which Arifmemetov fainted, according to the KHPG statement. They were then taken to a forest, where they were beaten again. According to an HRW report, the two men were given no food and very limited access to water for 24 hours after their detention.
Arifmemetov’s house was raided and searched when no one was there, his wife, Aliye Nejmedinova, was quoted as saying by the Crimean Human Rights Group (CHRG), a Ukraine-based nongovernmental organization. She said that the door to her house was cut open with an electric saw, and the hard drive of her husband’s computer was taken. Nejmedinova denied the charges against her husband, saying the books the investigators later claimed to have found in their apartment during the search were planted.
Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported that the Crimean Tatars who were detained were accused of being supporters of Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir. Russia considers Hizb ut-Tahrir a terrorist organization but the group is allowed to operate legally in Ukraine, according to Freedom House and RFE/RL.
Arifmemetov was transported to Simferopol on March 28, where he was charged with “involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir,” and faces up to 20 years in prison, according to KHPG. The organization said that previous trials of ethnic Crimean Tatars charged for alleged links to Hizb ut-Tahrir were “flawed” and involved “secret witnesses” and falsified evidence.
Arifmemetov was also charged with “preparation for a violent seizure of power,” which carries a sentence of up to 10 years, according to Russian independent human rights organization Memorial.
Early on March 29, the approximately two dozen detainees, including Arifmemetov, were driven to the airport and flown back to Rostov-on-Don, according to KHPG. They were not told where they were being taken, and their families were not notified, according to KHPG.
On September 5, Arifmemetov and several other detainees were transported to a pretrial detention facility in Krasnodar, Russia, according to a Facebook post by Crimean Solidarity. Arifmemetov, Bekirov, and Sheikhaliev were later transported to a pretrial detention center in Simferopol, according to the same post.
Krym.Realii quoted Arifmemetov’s defense attorney Aleksey Ladin on October 22 as saying that the journalist had spent five days in solitary confinement at the Simferopol facility for violating internal prison rules earlier in the month.
On November 12, during a court hearing in Simferopol, Arifmemetov denied the charges, saying his detention was illegal, according to a post on Crimean Solidarity’s Facebook page. He called his “forced removal” from Crimea to Rostov-on-Don, and subsequent return to Simferopol, a “deportation,” similar to the deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944.
Crimean lawyer Edem Semedlyaev, who defends Bekirov and coordinates the work of all defense attorneys in the case, was quoted as saying by Krym.Realii on November 12, 2019, that the inmates, including the journalists, did not receive food on trial days.
During a hearing on August 10, 2020, Arifmemetov shared a written statement with his lawyer, in which he wrote that his imprisonment was “related to my active position as a citizen and my professional activity as a civic journalist” and was part of a wider prosecution against dissenting views, according to Crimean Solidarity.
The FSB completed its investigation into the three journalists and other defendants on August 21, Crimean Solidarity reported.
The Crimean Supreme Court has extended the journalist’s detention several times between 2020 and 2022.
On November 24, the Southern District Military Court in Rostov-on-Don convicted Arifmemetov and Sheikhaliev of participating in Hizb ut-Tahrir and preparing to violently seize power, according to news reports. They will serve the first four years in prison and the rest of their sentences in a strict security colony, with additional restrictions on their liberty for one year after their release, a representative for the court said in an emailed response to CPJ’s query. The representative, who did not provide a name, did not give details on those restrictions.
According to Crimean Solidarity, after their release, the journalists will be prevented from leaving their homes overnight, leaving their municipalities or changing their residences, or participating in mass events. They will also be required to report to authorities twice a month.
Arifmemetov and Sheikhaliev pleaded not guilty, according to Crimean Solidarity. Lutfiye Zudiyeva, a representative for Crimean Solidarity, told CPJ via messaging app that the journalists plan to appeal the verdict.
Zudiyeva told CPJ on November 28 that Arifmemetov was being held in Detention Center No. 1 in Rostov-on-Don, and that he had no complaints about his health. Zudiyeva said that both Arifmemetov and Sheikhaliev will most likely be soon transferred to Pretrial Detention Center No. 3 in Novocherkassk, in Rostov region, where Crimean political prisoners are usually held pending their appeal.
Previously, on February 21, 2017, Arifmemetov had been detained—along with Bekirov—while livestreaming the raid of the home of Crimean Tatar activist Marlen Mustafaev in Simferopol, according to CHRG. He was sentenced the next day to five days of administrative arrest, the report said.
In October 2022, CPJ called the Russian Ministry of Interior, but nobody answered the phone. CPJ emailed the press service of the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office, but did not receive any replies.