A court in Russian-annexed Crimea ordered Crimean Tatar leader Nariman Dzhelyal to be held in custody for two months on September 6 on suspicion of involvement in an attack on a gas pipeline, a charge dismissed by Ukraine as fabricated.
Dzhelyal, deputy chairman of the Crimean Tatar’s self-governing assembly — the Mejlis — which was banned by pro-Moscow representatives in Crimea after the annexation in 2014, was arrested over the weekend, drawing condemnation from Ukraine and the United States.
Ukrainian authorities said more than 50 people were detained over the weekend as they protested at the arrest of Dzhelyal and four other activists outside the local office of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).
Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzheppar on September 6 accused Russian investigators of fabricating charges against those arrested, namely Dzhelyal, Aziz Akhmetov, and Asan Akhmetov, and mistreating them.
"The sabotage affair is fabricated and they [investigators] are trying to force a confession from the Akhtemovs to implicate Nariman Dzhelyal," Dzheppar said.
"There is reliable information that they are being tortured," she said without providing any details.
The Interfax news agency reported that the criminal investigation against Dzhelyal relates to a gas pipeline that was damaged on August 23 in a village near Crimea’s capital, Simferopol.
Dzheppar said that the detention of the five men was Moscow’s "revenge" for a Kyiv conference dedicated to the "de-occupation" of Crimea that Dzhelyal had taken part in in August. The event had been decried by Moscow as “anti-Russian.”
In a statement on September 5, the U.S. State Department called on "the Russian occupation authorities" to immediately release Dzhelyal and "at least 45 other Crimean Tatars” while accusing Moscow of politically motivated raids and detentions targeting the Mejlis and its leadership.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter on September 4 that Russia had "escalated terror in the occupied Crimea" by detaining five people, including Dzhelyal.
Since Russia seized Crimea in 2014, Russian authorities have prosecuted dozens of Crimean Tatars for allegedly belonging to the Hizb ut-Tahrir Islamist group that is banned in Russia but not in Ukraine.
Moscow’s takeover of the peninsula was vocally opposed by many Crimean Tatars, who are a sizable minority in the region.
Exiled from their homeland to Central Asia by the Soviet authorities under dictator Josef Stalin during World War II, many Crimean Tatars are wary of Russia and Moscow’s rule.
Rights groups and Western governments have denounced what they describe as a campaign of repression by the Russian-imposed authorities in Crimea who are targeting members of the Turkic-speaking Crimean Tatar community and others who have spoken out against Moscow’s takeover of the peninsula.
Russia took control of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 after sending in troops, seizing key facilities, and staging a referendum dismissed as illegal by at least 100 countries. Moscow also backs separatists in a war against government forces that has killed more than 13,200 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.
With reporting by Reuters, Interfax, and AFP