Russian authorities detained Rustem Sheikhaliev, a Crimean Tatar freelance journalist, in March 2019 in Simferopol, Crimea’s capital. Two other ethnic Crimean Tatar journalists, Osman Arifmemetov and Remzi Bekirov, were detained on the same day in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. The three journalists face terrorism charges in connection with their reporting on alleged human rights abuses by Russian authorities in Crimea.
Sheikhaliev livestreamed trials and posted the videos on the YouTube channel of Crimean Solidarity, 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. Sheikhaliev 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, according to Freedom House’s 2021 Freedom in the World report, including imposing substantial restrictions on media freedom. The number of media outlets in Crimea was reduced by more than 90 percent under a 2015 reregistration process overseen by the Russian media regulator 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 members of Crimea’s indigenous ethnic Crimean Tatar population, a Muslim minority, have openly opposed Russia’s occupation and have faced repression from Russian authorities, according to Freedom House and Human Rights Watch. Many politically active Crimean Tatars were put on trial on terrorism-related charges, according to Krym.Realii, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and a U.K.-based news site 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 Sheikhaliev in the Kamyanka district of Simferopol, the Crimean capital–as well as the homes of around two dozen other ethnic Crimean Tatars, most of them linked to Crimean Solidarity–late March 27, 2019, in Simferopol and several districts in Ukraine’s Russia-administered Crimea, according to media reports.
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.
Sheikhaliev is charged with organizing a terrorist activity and could be jailed for life if convicted, the Russian independent human rights organization Memorial reported.
In a video posted on Crimean Solidarity’s YouTube channel after the raid on March 27, the journalist’s son, Dzhelyal Sheikhaliev, said that the officers handcuffed the journalist and then conducted the search in Sheikhaliev’s house and the neighboring house that belongs to the journalist’s parents–both without a lawyer and without any supervision. Dzhelyal Sheikhaliev said the officers “brought two witnesses with them and did not allow to have other people as witnesses.” They seized family members’ cell phones and a Russian Quran, and later claimed to have found other Islamic literature, Dzhelyal Sheikhaliev said.
According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG), an independent human rights organization based in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, previous trials of ethnic Crimean Tatars charged for alleged links to Hizb ut-Tahrir were “flawed” and involved “secret witnesses” and falsified evidence.
On November 6, 2019, the defense attorney Emine Avamileva visited Sheikhaliev for the first time in the detention center, according to a Facebook post by Crimean Solidarity. She said the journalist did not complain about his health. The detention center administration denied the attorney’s request to give the journalist a Quran, she wrote.
Crimea Solidarity representative Lutfiye Zudiyeva told CPJ in a September 2021 phone interview that Sheikhaliev had been transferred to a pretrial detention center in Rostov-on-Don, where the trial is underway. She said that authorities had interrogated witnesses anonymously, and not given the defense any information on those people.
Sheikhaliev’s wife Suriya told CPJ via phone in September 2021 that her husband’s health was worsening in detention, and that he had high blood pressure and kidney problems. Suriya added that she has not been allowed to visit him in detention in person.
CPJ called the Russian Interior Ministry’s branch in Rostov-on-Don in September 2021, but no one answered. CPJ also emailed the Russian prosecutor general’s office for comment, but did not receive any response.