The dogs woke Gulnara Adilova before dawn on the morning she last saw her husband. First came the barking outside the windows, and then the hammering on the door.
“There were more than 20 men, some of them special forces and some of them FSB (the Russian intelligence services),” said Ms Adilova, 41, sitting in the spacious front room of her home, where the men in black masks forced her husband to the ground that morning six weeks ago.
“They said they were going to search the house. I asked for their papers, and when I looked I saw that they had a long list of people they were arresting that day.”
Bilal Adilova, 49, was among 20 who were detained. The sweep on March 29 was the latest by Russian security services against Crimean Tatars, a Muslim minority that makes up around 12 per cent of the two million population in the Black Sea peninsula annexed by President Putin from Ukraine five years ago.
Eighty-six Tatar men are currently in prison, most awaiting trial and all accused of links to Hizb utTahrir, a transnational Islamist organisation that is legal in Ukraine but has been classed as a terror group in Russia since 2003. It is banned in more than a dozen countries worldwide, but is legal in the UK.
Ms. Adilova insists that Bilal was never connected to Hizb utTahrir, but has been targeted because he spoke out about previous arrests, and was an public opponent of annexation.
“They knew him because he was a blogger, he was always going to the others’ court hearings and they don’t like active people,” she said. “We did not expect anything else from Russia. In these five years we have never slept calmly.”
Others admit to having contacts with the group before 2014, but insist they cut ties after annexation. Although crimes cannot be punished retrospectively under Russian law, the broad scope of the country’s terrorism statutes mean that social media posts shared before annexation can be considered ongoing terrorist propaganda.
Hizb utTahrir made inroads in Crimea following the collapse of communism, capitalising on the long persecution of Muslims in the region. The Crimean Tatars were deported to Central Asia in 1944 by Stalin, who believed them to be enemies within. When they returned to their lands after 1991 they were met with suspicion and often outright hostility from the local Slavic population, many of whom still believed Stalin’s claims.
The returnees squatted on land freed up by the disintegration of the collectivised Soviet farms and then gradually built their own homes.
Hizb utTahrir, which advocates for an Islamic caliphate, through nonviolent means, saw an opportunity in the marginalised Crimean Tatars. Although their members on the peninsula only ever numbered in the hundreds or low thousands before 2014, they were highly organised and visible.
“They were very noticeable because of their public initiatives, such as conferences, protests and press conferences,” said Elmira Muratova, a political scientist at Simferopol university. “In my opinion, they became victims, firstly, because they are easy prey for the authorities, and secondly, because they pose a threat to them with their organisation, solidarity and readiness for confrontation.”
Organising Hizb ut Tahrir activities in Russia carries a sentence of up to life in prison; promoting or being a member up to 20 years.
Four Tatars have been convicted so far, handed sentences of 15 years which were then increased to 17 years after they appealed. The trials are held in closed courts, with key evidence being given by secret witnesses.
“They give their evidence via radio links – we are told they are in the next room but actually they might not even be in the courthouse,” said Mamet Mambetov, a lawyer who is representing four of the men. “It is not lawful. As they speak we can tell that they have just learnt their lines. Before, we used to laugh. But now it is not even funny because their claims are so ungrounded.”
Since the first detentions in 2015, the crackdown has widened. Tatar activists, banned from holding unauthorised rallies under Russia’s strict public assembly laws, organised a series of synchronised solitary protests, for which they were all also detained although later released without charge. The Mejlis – the Crimean Tatars’ highest political body in Ukrainian times, which had openly opposed Hizb ut Tahrir – was forcibly dissolved by the Russian courts in 2016.
In a different time, the Crimean Tatars might have found a powerful defender in President Erdogan, who is normally vocal about the oppression of Muslims overseas. The Tatars – who speak a Turkic mother tongue and are descendants of the Muslims who ruled Crimea when it was a Khanate of the Ottoman Empire – should make a natural cause.
Indeed, in November 2017, Mr. Erdogan personally intervened to secure the release of two prominent Tatar activists in a swap for two Chechens imprisoned in Turkey. Ankara also provides some aid to the Tatars that fled Crimea for the Ukrainian mainland after 2014. Turkey, a NATO member, does not recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
However, as Mr. Putin’s relationship with Mr. Erdogan has grown closer, the Turkish leader has stayed silent on the Tatars’ plight.
A new megamosque on the outskirts of Simferopol, the Crimean capital, is being built by a Turkish construction company with Russian government funding, and advice from the Diyanet, Turkey’s state religious agency. It is touted by Moscow as proof that Crimea’s Muslims are treated better by Moscow than they ever were under Kiev’s rule, when the mosque’s construction stuttered due to planning problems.
“Ukraine turned a blind eye to the sects that were spreading here, including Hizb utTahrir,” said Ayder Ismailov, the deputy grand mufti of Crimea, whose office is officially registered with the Russian authorities. “Now it is using the Tatars as a force against Russia. As a spiritual leader I don’t believe that prison is the right solution. But if there were oppression of Muslims, I would be the first to speak about it.”
Mr. Putin has officially invited Mr. Erdogan to the new mosque’s grand opening, due next spring. Perhaps aware of the outcry it may cause among his own pious voters as the arrests of Tatars continues, Mr. Erdogan is yet to RSVP.
Ms. Adilova says she will not use the mosque when it opens. Her father Serviye, 83, was seven when Stalin’s deportation happened, and one of the first to return to Crimea as the USSR crumbled. He still struggles to speak about what happened – and fears for the worst again.
“I remember how the soldiers knocked on the door and gave us 15 minutes to get ready,” he says of that day in 1944. “And I recognise what is happening now. It is intimidation.”