Remzi Bekirov, an ethnic Crimean Tatar journalist, is serving a 19-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 Ukraine’s Crimea. Russian authorities detained him in March 2019 in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don along with another Crimean journalist, Osman Arifmemetov. A third Crimean Tatar journalist, Rustem Sheikhaliev, was detained on the same day in Simferopol, Crimea’s capital.
Bekirov, an accredited correspondent for independent Russian news website Grani, also contributed to Crimean Solidarity, where he livestreamed trials and posted the videos on the group’s YouTube channel along with bloggers Arifmemetov and Sheikhaliev. 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), 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 Crimean Solidarity’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.
A video on Crimean Solidarity’s YouTube channel posted on April 11, 2019, indicated as Bekirov’s last video before the detention, is a three-minute speech from Crimean Tatar activist Belyal Adilov, who was also detained in late March 2019. In the video, Adilov shares his views on the importance of being persistent, using Crimean Tatars’ return from the decades-long exile from Crimea in the 20th century as an example. “Solidarity is important during these trying times,” Adilov says in the video.
Grani’s website was blocked in 2014 by Russian state media and telecommunications regulator Roskomnadzor, and the news outlet had to change its name, according to 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 2023 Freedom in the World report. The number of media outlets in Crimea fell by more than 90% 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 Bekirov—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.
Bekirov, who was not home at the time of the raid, was detained later that day along with Arifmemetov in a café in Rostov-on-Don, according to Grani and a statement by the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG), a Ukrainian nongovernmental organization.
After being detained, Bekirov and Arifmemetov were beaten to the point at which Arifmemetov fainted, according to KHPG. They were then taken to a forest, where they were beaten again, according to the same statement. According to an HRW 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 HRW in 2019 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 was quoted as saying.
Bekirov was charged in Simferopol with “organizing the activities of a terrorist organization” and “preparation for a violent seizure of power,” according to Russian independent human rights organization Memorial.
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 to Freedom House and RFE/RL.
Early on March 29, 2019, the approximately two dozen Crimean Tatar detainees, including Bekirov, were driven to the airport and flown 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.
Bekirov and several other detainees were transported on September 5, 2019, to a pretrial detention facility in Krasnodar, Russia, 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, which is based on the narrative received from Bekirov later. Bekirov, Sheikhaliev, and Arifmemetov were later transported to a pretrial detention center in Simferopol, according to the same post.
Ukrainian news site Gordon.ua reported on September 10, 2019—quoting a video posted on Facebook by another inmate’s lawyer, Emil Kurbedinov—that Bekirov was placed in solitary confinement for some time. He was later moved to a basement, where he was not able to stand up straight or lay down and had to nap standing.
On November 12, 2019, Bekirov’s defense attorney Edem Semedlyaev, who also coordinates the work of other defense lawyers in the case, was quoted as saying by Krym.Realii that the inmates, including the journalists, did not receive food on trial days.
During a court hearing on April 6, 2021, Bekirov said he believed his arrest and prosecution were in retaliation for his work covering police actions in Crimea, according to the Crimean Tatar Resource Center, a local human rights group.
On March 10, 2022, the Southern District Military Court in Rostov-on-Don sentenced Bekirov to 19 years in prison for allegedly organizing the activities of a terrorist organization and preparing for a violent seizure of power, charges that Bekirov denied, according to reports by his employer and Krym.Realii. The court ruled that Bekirov will serve the first five years of his sentence in prison and the other 14 years in a strict-security prison colony, those reports said.
On March 28, 2023, a court in Vlasikha, a town near Moscow, upheld Bekirov’s sentence, Crimean Solidarity reported.
Bekirov is held in Prison No. 2 in Yeniseysk, in the Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk Krai, according to Crimean Solidarity. Bekirov is not allowed to sit or lie on his bed during the day and can call family and receive parcels only once a year, Crimean Solidarity reported in September 2023.
Crimean Solidarity representative Lutfiye Zudiyeva told CPJ in October 2023 that Bekirov’s varicose veins were getting worse due to the conditions in detention, which she called “particularly strict.” Bekirov is under round-the-clock video surveillance, she said, adding that the journalist was given food with pork, which goes against his religious beliefs. “Psychologically, he is doing well,” she said.
Previously, on February 21, 2017, Bekirov had been detained—along with Arifmemetov—while livestreaming the raid of the home of Crimean Tatar activist Marlen Mustafaev in Simferopol, according to independent Ukrainian news outlet Hromadske. He was sentenced the next day to five days of administrative arrest, the report said.
In October 2023, CPJ emailed the press service of the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office for comment but did not receive any replies.