Russian authorities detained Remzi Bekirov, an ethnic Crimean Tartar journalist, in March 2019 in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don along with another Crimean journalist, Osman Arifmemetov. A third Crimean Tartar journalist, Rustem Sheikhaliev, was detained on the same day in Simferopol, Crimea’s capital. The three journalists face terrorism charges in connection with their reporting on alleged human rights abuses by Russian authorities in Crimea.
Bekirov, an accredited correspondent for independent Russian news website Grani, also contributed to Crimean Solidarity where, along with bloggers Arifmemetov and Sheikhaliev, he livestreamed trials and posted the videos on the group’s YouTube channel. Crimean Solidarity is a support group that helps 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), the Crimea-focused project of the U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and a CPJ review of the videos on the channel and the group’s Facebook page. Bekirov 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.
The video on Crimean Solidarity’s YouTube channel posted on April 11, 2019, under Bekirov’s name and indicated as his last video before the detention, is a three-minute speech from Crimean Tatar activist Belyal Adilov, also detained in late March. In the video, Adilov shares his views on the importance of being persistent, and gives an example of Crimean Tatars’ persistence in returning from the decades-long exile from Crimea in the 20th century and says that “solidarity is important during these trying times.”
Grani had its website blocked in 2014 by Russian state media and telecommunications regulator Roskomnadzor and had to change its name, according to the websites of the outlet and Roskomnadzor. Grani issued a statement on May 24, 2019, in defense of Bekirov and other Crimean Tatar journalists, saying Bekirov was one of the reporters who covered “never-ending searches, arrests and trials on fabricated charges” since “Crimea, after annexation, has turned into an information black hole.” Bekirov, along with Arifmemetov and Sheikhaliev, had become “dazzling professionals in a short period of time and, of course, themselves ended up under attack,” the statement said.
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 2021 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, CPJ has documented.
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, CPJ has documented.
Officers of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), Interior Ministry, and the National Guard raided the home of Bekirov–as well as the homes of around two dozen other ethnic Crimean Tatars, most of them linked to the support group called Crimean Solidarity–late March 27, 2019, in Simferopol and several districts in Crimea, according to media reports.
Bekirov, who was not home at the time of the raid, was detained later on March 27 in a café, along with another ethnic Crimean Tatar journalist, Osman Arifmemetov, in Rostov-on-Don, according to Grani, and the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG), a Ukrainian nongovernmental organization.
After being detained at a café, Bekirov and Arifmemetov were beaten to the point that Arifmemetov fainted, according to KHPG. Then they were taken to a forest where they were beaten again, according to the same statement. According to HRW’s report, the two men were given no food and very limited access to water for 24 hours after their detention. They were then transported to the detention center in Simferopol, according to Grani.
Bekirov’s wife, Khalide Bekirova, told Human Rights Watch in 2020 that the books the FSB officers claimed to have found during the house search were planted. “I was in the living room, my parents and the kids were in the kitchen. . . During that time, they planted those books in the basement, two or three white books, one of them was called Caliphate,” she said.
Bekirov was charged in Simferopol with “organizing the activities of a terrorist organization” and faces a life sentence if found guilty, according to KHPG.
Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported that the detainees were alleged 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 Freedom House’s 2021 Freedom in the World report and RFE/RL. Russia has enforced its laws in Crimea since annexing the peninsula in 2014, according to Freedom House’s report.
Early March 29, 2019, the two dozen Crimean Tatar detainees, including the journalist, were driven to the airport and flown to the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, according to KHPG. They were not told where they were being taken, and their families were not notified, according to KHPG. They were transported to a pretrial detention facility in Krasnodar, Russia, on September 5, 2019, according to a Facebook post by Crimean Solidarity. Bekirov and Sheikhaliev were placed in punishment cells for their alleged “inclination to spread extremism” among inmates, according to the Facebook post that is based on the narrative received from Bekirov later. The three journalists were later transported to a pretrial detention center in Simferopol, according to the same post.
Previously, on February 21, 2017, Bekirov was detained–along with Arifmemetov–while livestreaming the raid of a Crimean Tatar activist Marlen Mustafaev’s home in Simferopol, and was sentenced the next day to five days of administrative arrest, according to Ukrainian nongovernmental organization Crimean Human Rights Group (CRHG) and independent Ukrainian news outlet Hromadske.
Bekirov’s defense attorney Edem Semedlyaev, who also coordinates the work of other defense lawyers in the case, told Krym.Realii November 12, 2019, that the inmates, including the journalists, did not receive food on trial days.
Ukrainian news site Gordon.ua reported–quoting a video posted on Facebook by another inmate’s lawyer, Emil Kurbedinov–that Bekirov was placed in a solitary confinement cell for some time prior to being moved to a basement where he was not able to stand up straight or to lay down, and had to nap standing.
During a court hearing on April 6, 2021, Bekirov said that he believed his arrest and prosecution were retaliation for his work covering police actions in Crimea, according to news reports.
Crimea Solidarity representative Lutfiye Zudiyeva told CPJ via phone that Bekirov was being held in a detention center in Rostov–on-Don while the trial was underway, and that in August 2021 a court ruled for him to remain in detention until at least December 16.
She said that authorities had questioned witnesses anonymously, and not given the defense any information about those people.
The journalist’s wife, Khalide Bekirova, told CPJ via phone in October 2021 that she has almost no hope her husband will be acquitted because “all people accused on political [grounds] are kept in jail for a long time.” She said authorities have not allowed her to visit her husband in detention, and she only sees him during court hearings.
Bekirova said her husband has no serious health problems, but experienced issues with his teeth because of the prison food. She added that he had contracted COVID-19 in detention but recovered.
CPJ called the Interior Ministry’s branch in Rostov-on-Don but an officer on duty refused to comment on any of the detainees. CPJ emailed the Russian Interior Ministry for comment, but did not receive any reply.