A prominent activist from Russia’s mainly Mulsim region of Tatarstan has fled the country for neighbouring Ukraine shortly after being released from prison after serving a three-year for openly criticising Moscow’s occupation of Crimea.
Rafis Kashapov, chair of the All-Tatar Public Center in the regional capital Kazan, was arrested in December 2014 and sentenced to three years in prison in September 2015 for a series of short posts on the popular Russian language social networking site, VKontakte.
Kashapov is now seeing political asylum in Kiev but said he is willing to apply to other countries for refuge if he is denied by Ukraine’s authorities.
Kashapov was the first Russian to be imprisoned for publicly criticising Moscow’s 2014 military invasion and illegal annexation of the strategic Black Sea region.
In January, the European Court of Human Rights sent the Russian government questions regarding the prosecution and imprisonment of Kashapov,
Since Kashapov’s conviction, Russia has prosecuted several others for similar criticisms of its occupation of Crimea and Russia’s continued involvement in the war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region.
Kashapov’s heads a nongovernmental group in Tatarstan knows as the All-Tatar Public Center. The group campaigns to preserve the national identity, language, and culture of the Volga Tatars, a Sunni Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic group whose roots are traced back to the indigenous populations of central Russia and the Mongol Hordes that ruled over medieval Russia and Ukraine for nearly four centuries.
The Volga Tatars are distantly related to the Tatars in Crimea, who are their ethnic, linguistic, and religious kin.
Though less publicised than the 2012 conviction of two members of the feminist protest punk group Pussy Riot, Kashapov was named a “political prisoner” by Russian human rights group Memorial shortly after his incarceration.
Kashapov was convicted under a new Russian legislation that punishes citizens for vaguely worded criminal offences, such as “extremism” and “justifying terrorism on social media”.
“It is obvious”, Aude Merlin, Russia specialist and lecturer at the ULB University in Brussels, told New Europe, “that from this perspective even contesting the annexation of Crimea is a crime in itself and could indeed be considered an act of “extremism”. The Russian laws give a very flexible, elastic definition of “extremism”. From this perspective, (Russian President Vladimir) Putin didn’t even need the new law covering “terrorist propaganda”, because it was already covered by the previous laws on extremism. I would say it’s an overkill.”