“When the current ran, I constantly jerked” — harrowing details emerge of Russia’s FSB torturing a Crimean Tatar into “confessing” to sabotage.

On 24 September, the Russia-controlled Supreme Court of Crimea is scheduled to hear the appeal of Crimean Tatar Asan Akhtemov. Detained on 3 September, he is charged with sabotage,” or allegedly carrying out an explosion in a gas pipeline in Perevalne village near Simferopol on 23 August.

The “evidence” for the accusation line is Akhtemov’s self-incriminatory statements. The evidence was manifestly undue. This is because it was literally beaten out of Asan. Hence, the writ of appeal against the first instance court’s ruling arresting Akhtemov asks the Supreme Court to take into account the fact that earlier, the defendant had given false confessions under torture.

Torturing innocent people to obtain “testimonies” is a common practice FSB uses in Russia-annexed Crimea to gag peaceful resistance represented by the peninsula’s ethnic Muslim people, Crimean Tatars. Yet, the approach is not new to Moscow. Originated in the 1930s in the USSR, it is now making a comeback in Putin’s Russia and Russian-occupied territories.

Asan Akhtemov and his compatriots were arrested on 3-4 September. On that night, Russian security service officers raided their homes and detained Deputy Mejlis of Crimean Tatars Nariman Dzhelyal, Aziz Akhtemov, Asan Akhtemov, Eldar Odamanov, and Shevket Useinov for alleged “sabotage.”

How Crimean Tatar leader Dzhelyal swelled the ranks of Ukrainian “saboteurs”

The five were taken in an unknown direction. Only on the evening of 5 September, their whereabouts came out of the shadows: the detainees were found in the FSB Department for Crimea.

The events provoked a wave of dismay within the Crimean Tatar community. They went out to the FSB building in Simferopol to find out the destiny of their compatriots. Russian police handled the protesters without mittens: 58 people were arrested. Later, they were released.

On 6 September, Moscow’s marionette Kyiv District Court in Simferopol heard the case of cousins Aziz and Asan Akhtemov and Nariman Dzhelyal. It decided to put them in custody for two months. The defendants pleaded not guilty.

Asan Akhtemov’s writ of appeal against the 6 September decision we mentioned earlier is among other things to bring the Supreme Court’s attention to one suspicious detail implying that Akhtemov was tortured: he was detained on 3 September at 11:30 pm, but investigation of his case is recorded to have started on 4 September 5:49 pm. No guesses are needed, Asan told his lawyer what happened throughout that short yet terrifying time slot.

“On 3 September 2021 around 11:30 pm, when I was sleeping in my house with my family, people broke into our home, in the number of 10 people in military uniform, with masks and weapons. They arrived in several cars. Those people woke me up and said ‘let’s go.’ The wife and children woke up and screamed with fear. These people showed me no documents, they just put a plastic mask on my eyes and handcuffed me. The mask was not possible to see through. They started taking me out of the house. This was accompanied by threats and accusations that I allegedly had raped some woman. I was put in the car and taken in an unknown direction…

The car stopped and I was pulled out, taken by hands and led to some building. We went several floors down the staircase, for more than five minutes. I think it was a basement. One man dragged me and also five people followed us.

Took to the room, sat down facing the back of a chair, taped my legs to a chair and arms to the back. When I was being taken here, these people threatened me that they would plant weapons and drugs, said my wife was beautiful and hinted they could harm her.

After I had been put on the chair and tied, they attached frayed wires to my ears, after which I felt a strong electric shock. Timewise, this lasted for around ten seconds. They did it about six or seven times. After this, they discharged smaller doses of current and simultaneously talked to me. When the current ran, I constantly jerked. After this, I agreed to everything these people told me. They told me I had detonated a gas pipeline in Perevalne, that my cousin Aziz Akhtemov had told everything they knew, how we had done it, on which car and other details. They threatened that I would never leave this place.

After these threats and torture with electricity, I told them I would agree with everything they say. After this, I was pulled up, put on the bench, threatened again, after which I felt a strong punch in the neck area — in the nape— and dragged somewhere. Then they took my mask off. A person calling himself a doctor but wearing a military uniform came in. This person told me to say how everything had been. Apparently, I did not say what they needed, after which they again put a mask on my eyes and again punched me one time in the neck area. Then I was picked up, taken under my arms and brought back down, probably, in a basement. They again sat me on the chair and attached wires to my ears. I thought they would electrocute me again, got anxious about my life, and told them I would do everything they needed.

They took off my mask and I saw a video camera. A person calling himself a doctor told me that now the recording would start and I would have to say everything I was supposed to, or no one would talk to me anymore — I had the last chance. Apart from this man, three people in military uniform and masks were present there. A woman in military attire sat there, I saw her eyes as she wore a mask. They were in a rush and said I had two hours. I said everything they wanted on camera, they put a mask on me again and started taking me out of the basement. At that moment I thought they were leading me for execution, as these people always said that they shot well, that [if] I would start to run, they would shoot me and tell that this was done in an attempt to escape.

They put me in a car and took me somewhere. I thought they took me to the forest and these people always said they would take me to the woods and kill me there.

They pulled me out of the car and said: ‘Run and remember that I shoot well.’ I said, ‘I won’t run, shoot me here.’

Then they took me in the car and drove somewhere. I was brought to the FSB building at 13 Franko avenue in Simferopol where I was interrogated by detectives and signed many documents. In doing so I felt awful as my whole body hurt, I suffocated. In the FSB building, they turned the camera on and I told them everything they needed. Even now I have [panic] attacks when falling asleep. It seems I am forgetting how to breathe. I haven’t gone number two for a week already.”

Asan Akhtemov. Photo: Crimean Solidarity

The FSB demonstrated the video containing Akhtemov’s coerced confessions as if from the scene of “sabotage” at the pipeline. Zvezda , a Russian state-run TV network run by the Ministry of Defence, was the first to publish the video on its Telegram channel.

Later, Akhtemov pleaded not guilty and gave testimony that those confessions were extracted by torture. For that, he paid a price. The currency in relations with the Russian FSB is years of prison.

On 17 September, Akhtemov’s charges were modified from “sabotage” to “sabotage committed by a group of persons,” with the latter entailing 12-20 years’ imprisonment compared to the former, punishable by a 10-15 years’ prison term. Apart from that, a new accusation against Akhtemov was presented — alleged purchase or acquisition of explosives, the storage of explosives by a group of persons (implies 10-15 years behind bars).

“This is the FSB paying Asan back for denying the first confession,” Ayder Azamatov, Akhtemov’s lawyer, commented on the aggravation of accusations.

Ayder Azamatov. Photo: Crimean Solidarity

Asan Akhtemov is being held under custody until 4 November. Today, likely from torture, he suffers from pain in the chest, suffocation, insomnia. The Crimean Tatar cannot sleep as it seems to him he can’t breathe; his cellmates have to wake him up so that he does not choke. Apart from that, the man has vascular and stomach diseases.

Despite this, the prisoner is deprived of medical care. Asan’s wife sends him packages with the necessary medication but Akhtemov never receives them. A doctor is not provided.

While what we usually regard as torture, with beatings and electric shocks, is a regular practice in Russian prisons to extract “confessions,” depriving detainees of crucial medical care may, in fact, be also equated to torture, as the European Court of Human Rights ruled on numerous occasions. One of them is the case Ilascu and Others v Moldova and Russia (2004), when four detainees were held in a dire prison environment that deteriorated their health but they did not receive adequate medical care. The Court likened such treatment to torture. With regard to Crimean Tatar political prisoners, the Crimean Human Rights Group expert Oleksandr Siedov views their detention conditions, in particular lack of medical care, as torture.

The good news is that the European Court of Human Rights has reacted to the request made by Ukrainian lawyer Yevheniya Zakrevska on interim measures to protect Asan Akhtemov and Nariman Dzhelyalov who was also subjected to torture. Prior to making a decision, the Court requested additional information on medical examination of the men and the Kremlin’s official reaction to statements about torture.

Tradition tracing back to Soviet times

While we continue to monitor how the case unfolds, it is good to look into the roots of Russian FSB’s work.

The method used against Asan Akhmetov and many other Crimean Tatars who oppose the occupation regime was torture to squeeze out public admissions of guilt. The approach is nothing new under the sun: it is rooted in the Soviet tradition of the Great Terror, Stalin’s purge of the thirties.

In 1937–1938, the Soviet Union saw the mass application of torture in criminal prosecution. Officers of NKVD, an abbreviation for the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs of the Soviet Union, literally beat a false confession out of innocent people. This was done to falsify cases concerning “conspiracy,” “espionage,” “terrorism.”

And the defendants’ “confessions,” just like in Akhtemov’s case, served as the one and only evidence in proceedings, simply because no such crimes were real.

In July 1937 in Moscow, at the meeting of regional NKVD heads in the preparation to the mass arrests of dissidents, Nikolai Yezhov, a Soviet secret police official under Joseph Stalin, and his deputy Mikhail Frinovsky directly authorized chekists (security service officers) to use physical means of influence.

That is when torture was legalized as a means of investigation. 1937–1938 became the apotheosis of torture investigation in the USSR.

This is how criminal cases were falsified back then and this is how they are trumped-up today in occupied Crimea since 2014. For Crimean Tatars, this practice equals targeted persecution, for the world — an atrocity, and for Putin — a way to both intimidate dissidents and demonize Crimean Tatars, who overwhelmingly opposed Russia’s landgrab, as alleged “saboteurs,” “terrorists,” “extremists” in the eyes of the peninsula’s population and the world. The Russian President’s mercantile policy has an explanation: Crimea as Moscow’s military base needs only a loyal population.

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