October 27, 2017 / 1:49 PM / a year ago

Out of Russian custody, Tatar leaders vow to return to Crimea

KIEV (Reuters) - Two Crimean Tatar activists released from Russian custody this week said on Friday they would travel back to the annexed peninsula and campaign for the freedom of other political prisoners and the return of Crimea to Ukraine.

Crimean Tatar prominent activists Ilmi Umerov (L) and Ahtem Chiygoz (R), who opposed to Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region, then were sentenced by a Russian court and recently freed, and member of the Ukrainian Parliament Mustafa Dzhemilev attend a news conference and a welcoming ceremony at Boryspil International Airport outside Kiev, Ukraine October 27, 2017. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

The Tatars, a mainly Muslim Turkic minority in Crimea, have largely opposed Russian rule since the 2014 annexation. Moscow has been accused of violating the rights of the community, 50 of whose members are still imprisoned on political grounds, according to the Kiev authorities.

Ilmi Umerov, deputy head of the Crimean Tatars’ semi-official Mejlis legislature, and fellow Tatar leader Ahtem Chiygoz, were released unexpectedly on Wednesday.

“Whether they allow me or not, I will go home without fail,” Umerov told journalists after flying back to Kiev.

“I’m sure that if things continue like this then the topic of Crimea will not drop out of the newspaper pages and the process will continue of freeing people, gradually de-occupying Crimea and restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” he said.

Umerov, who had been sentenced to two years in Russian prison for separatism, credited international pressure on the Kremlin for his early release.

Earlier, they had flown to Turkey to meet Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, whom Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has thanked for helping free the pair.

Umerov’s supporters said at the time that the two-year jail term handed to him actually amounted to a death penalty since he suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Russian officials denied the prosecutions were politically-motivated.

Chiygoz said their release did not feel like a return to freedom.

“Because a release would be the liberation of my people, my land, my homeland, my country,” he said.

According to a U.N. human rights report, Russia is committing “grave” human rights violations in Crimea, including by imposing Russian citizenship and deporting prisoners.

Russia seized Crimea in the wake of a pro-European uprising in Kiev that ousted a Moscow-backed president. It replaced Ukrainian laws with Russian laws on the peninsula, but its annexation has never been internationally recognised.

Crimean Tatars are traditionally pro-Ukrainian, as they suffered mass deportation to Central Asia under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Since the annexation, they have been subjected to intimidation, house searches and arbitrary detention, rights groups say.

Moscow says the overwhelming majority of Crimeans voted to join Russia in a proper and fair referendum.

Writing by Alessandra Prentice; editing by Matthias Williams

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