'Fear and Despair' For Tatar Activists in Russian Crimea

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SIMFEROPOL, Crimea — A Crimean man whose son and nephew were abducted five months ago said he never expected this to happen, but he now fears the Russian-backed authorities.

"It looks like they want to create an atmosphere of fear and despair," Abdureshit Dzhepparov told NBC News in his empty house in Belogorsk, 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) from the Crimean capital of Simferopol.

With only a cat to keep him company, he said he continues to wait for his relatives, but doesn't not know how he's react if they were to appear now.

Now sad and weary, Dzhepparov is a veteran activist among the Tatar community, a Muslim minority that has vocally but peacefully opposed the Russian annexation of Crimea a year ago. He believes his family was targeted because of their political activism.

His 18-year-old son, Islyam Dzhepparov, and 23-year-old nephew, Dzhevdet Islyamov, were both seen forced into a car and driven away in late September. They have not been seen since.

Dzhepparov said the investigation by local authorities in this case, and in others, felt like continued harassment as relatives were "endlessly interrogated."

"We felt like suspects, not victims," he said.

Tatar activists told NBC News that they have borne the brunt of the Russian annexation and they are reminded of Soviet times, when Crimea's indigenous people were expelled and repressed.

They said that at least seven Tatars have disappeared since last March — two later turning up dead, one with traces of torture. Dozens have faced arrests, fines and criminal charges for attempting to exercise the right to assembly. Leading figures, once persecuted by the Soviets, have been banned from Crimea by the Russian authorities.

"They suspect us of a thoughtcrime. That we think different," said Liliya Budzhurova, deputy director of the only Crimean Tatar-language channel, ATR.

The Simferopol-based broadcaster survived raids by dozens of armed men waving Kalashnikovs at women in the newsroom.

But ATR faces closure on April 1 because the Russian authorities refused four times to extend its broadcasting license on technicalities.

"It's completely clear there are political reasons for that, and we have 17 days left to live," Budzhurova said in an interview on Friday.

Crimea featured in Freedom House's “Freedom in the World” rating this year for the first time — and ranked "non-free" with a dismal score of 6.5 of 7 (the less, the freer) — less than even mainland Russia, which had a score of 6. In comparison, Ukraine scored 3 and the United States 1.

Last fall, Human Rights Watch released a report writing that Russian and local authorities "have severely curtailed human rights protections" since Russian forces started their takeover in February 2014.

Yulia Gorbunova, a researcher at Human Rights Watch and one of the authors of the report, told NBC News in a phone interview that things have not improved.

"It’s gotten worse somewhat," she said. "Authorities continue to harass and intimidate anyone who continues to oppose Russian action, or who has done so in the past."

Gorbunova said that most pro-Ukraine activists have left Crimea and those that remain are under a major threat, and that freedom of assembly and freedom of the press are severely curtailed. She added that local authorities continue to act aggressively against those who oppose Russian rule, especially against the Tatar minority, with the implicit support from the Russian government.

"Moscow doesn’t do anything to stop them, and I’m sure Moscow is aware," she said.

The peninsula's Russia-appointed ombudswoman Lyudmila Lubina did not return repeated calls by NBC.

An interview on her website makes no mention of rights violations reported by international watchdogs or Crimean Tatars' abductions, and says the main human rights issue in the region is locals struggling to obtain Russian passports (1.8 million of the total population of 2.5 million have already done so).

Russian legislation criminalizes opposing the peninsula's annexation, so those who disagree must leave or face criminal cases — as did several Tatar activists who dared unfurl a Ukrainian flag earlier this month.

Tens of thousands of pro-Ukrainian residents of Crimea have left the region since last March's annexation, made at Russian gunpoint and denounced internationally.

But not all groups targeted by Russia's laws suffer persecution.

"It's business as usual," said Vladimir Balchikov, 36, who runs a gay hotel in Crimea with his boyfriend Alexander Ivanov.

Russia is notorious for its laws against "gay propaganda," which have resulted in a spate of show trials against LGBT activists. And Gorbunova, the researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that Crimean authorities have made derogatory and aggressive statements against LGBT groups.

Crimea's new Russian leadership have jumped on the homophobic bandwagon. The republic's head, Sergei Aksyonov, said in September about gays that "such people are not welcome and not needed in Crimea."

But Ivanov and Balchikov, who have run their Hotel Friends since 2012, said it was just obligatory political noises and they have nothing to fear.

"People are more tolerant here than in many places in Russia," Balchikov said. "And we bring in good business, which is more important for the region."

The LGBT community in Crimea, however, keeps a low profile and never opposed the annexation.

Many Crimean gays have in fact welcomed it, despite Russia's anti-gay legislation, Balchikov said.

They cannot rule out that it could get worse, the duo admitted.

"Let's wait and see what this year brings," Ivanov said. "But I hope they won't start with us, at least."

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