Crimean Tatars return to Kiev after release from jail in Russia

Restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity ‘is minimum task... Our struggle revolves around this’

Two leading Crimean Tatar activists returned to Kiev on Friday after being freed from Russian jail sentences that they said were part of Moscow's widespread repression of their community since it annexed the peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

Last month, courts in Russian-controlled Crimea sentenced Akhtem Chiygoz to eight years in jail for organising protests and gave Ilmi Umerov a two-year sentence for "separatism" after he criticised the Kremlin's seizure of his homeland.

Russian media say they were released on Wednesday in response to an appeal to the Kremlin from a senior Muslim cleric in Crimea. They were flown to Turkey, which has close links to the Crimean Tatars, before continuing to Ukraine.

At Kiev’s Boryspil airport, Mr Chiygoz (52) said he was glad to have been released, but declared: “I can’t compare this to liberation. Liberation is freedom, it is what we have fought for, not the freedom of certain individuals [but] the freedom of my birthplace, my land, my people, my country.”

Alongside him, Mr Umerov (60), said: “After the release of individual people will come the de-occupation of Crimea and the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. This is the minimum task . . . Our entire struggle revolves around this.”

Crimean Tatars make up about 12 per cent of the Black Sea peninsula's mostly ethnic-Russian population of two million, and strongly opposed its seizure by Moscow's forces and a subsequent, deeply flawed referendum on "reunification" with Russia.

‘Arbitrary arrests’

Last month, a United Nations report on Crimea said the takeover had brought "grave human rights violations, such as arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforced disappearances, ill-treatment and torture, and at least one extra-judicial execution"; Russia dismissed the allegations as "groundless".

Mr Chiygoz was convicted for his alleged role in protests that took place on February 26th, 2014 – the day before gunmen seized Crimea’s parliament and oversaw the appointment of a previously marginal Russian nationalist as the region’s leader.

After charging him with separatism, Russian authorities consigned Mr Umerov to a psychiatric hospital for several weeks, and his lawyer said a prison term would be a “death sentence” for a man suffering from Parkinson’s disease and diabetes.

Later on Friday, both activists met Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, who said he had helped secure their freedom through co-ordinated efforts with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Of course, this is not the final celebration,” Mr Poroshenko told the activists by telephone after their release.

“The final celebration will come when we liberate Crimea.”