Rustem Sheikhaliev

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Rustem Sheikhaliev, a 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 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. Sheikhaliev and Arifmemetov were sentenced on the same charges in November 2022. Bekirov was handed a 19-year sentence in March 2022.

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 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, 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 Sheikhaliev in the Kamyanka district of Simferopol, the Crimean capital—as well as the homes of about two dozen other ethnic Crimean Tatars, most of them linked to Crimean Solidarity—in Simferopol and several districts in Ukraine’s Russia-administered Crimea, according to reports by Grani and Krym.Realii.

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 searched Sheikhaliev’s house and the neighboring house that belongs to the journalist’s parents—without a lawyer or any supervision. The officers “brought two witnesses with them and did not allow to have other people as witnesses,” the son said, adding that they seized family members’ cell phones and a Russian Quran, and later claimed to have found other Islamic literature. 

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

Sheikhaliev was charged with "participation in the activities of a terrorist organization," which carries a sentence of to 20 years in prison, and with "preparation for a violent seizure of power," which carries a sentence of up to 10 years, according to the Russian independent human rights organization Memorial.

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. 

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. 

On November 24, the Southern District Military Court in Rostov-on-Don convicted Sheikhaliev and Arifmemetov 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. 

Sheikhaliev and Arifmemetov pleaded not guilty, according to Crimean Solidarity. Zudiyeva told CPJ via messaging app that the journalists plan to appeal the verdict. 

Zudiyeva told CPJ on November 28 that Sheikhaliev 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 Sheikhaliev and Arifmemetov 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. 

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.