“You must stay strong,” Crimean Tatar leader Akhtem Chiygoz, right, who landed in Kiev after winning his freedom from imprisonment in Russia, told other Tatars still in prison for fighting for their national rights in Crimea. “That will anger them, but in the end you will win.”
Chiygoz, who arrived with Ilmi Umerov, left, a fellow prisoner and deputy head of the Mejlis, or parliament, was welcomed by a crowd of supporters at Boryspil airport Oct. 27. He had been held in prison for nearly three years for participation in protests defending Tatar rights and Ukrainian sovereignty in 2014. After massive Maidan protests overthrew the Moscow-backed regime of Viktor Yanukovych, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded Crimea and seized the peninsula from Ukraine. They closed down the Mejlis, expelled its leaders and barred them from returning to their homeland.
“I am definitely going home, no matter what awaits me there,” Umerov defiantly told reporters. Longtime Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev, center, also welcomed them. Turkish authorities had negotiated the release of Umerov and Chiygoz.
The vast majority of Tatars oppose the Russian takeover of their homeland. Many had joined the mass mobilizations that overthrew Yanukovych. Russian authorities tried to prevent an annual event in May marking the forced removal of the entire Tatar population from Crimea to the Russian interior by the Soviet regime of Joseph Stalin in 1944. Nearly half the Crimean Tatars’ population perished.
Putin’s forces have continued to harass and imprison Tatars and other opponents of Moscow’s occupation of Crimea. On Oct. 14, they arrested 34 people, among some 100 who are mounting one-person protests opposing the ongoing attacks.