Former political prisoner and dissident Mustafa Dzhemilev speaks to Modern Times about the occupation of Crimea, his relationship with Russia and why he received the Nansen Medal. Today, he is the political leader for the ethnic group of 280,000 Crimean Tatars.

Crimean Tatar Mustafa Dzhemilev (72) tells Modern Times that he never intended to become a political leader. Not for a single day, that was his plan. But having been a political activist for a number of years, he was asked, and today he has represented a quarter of a million Crimean Tatars for a quarter of a century.

Immediately after he was born, the Dzhemilevs and other Crimean Tatar families were deported to Central Asia by Soviet authorities, in 1944. Dzhemilev grew up in exile in Uzbekistan, and has been politically very active since the age of 18. Over the next 25 years he was arrested six times for anti-Soviet activities, and spent a total of 15 years in prison, including in labour camps. His life was constantly under surveillance. Dzhemilev is also known to have carried out the longest hunger strike in the history of the human rights movement – for 303 days. He survived only because he was force-fed.

Crimea will place nuclear weapons on its territory on President’s orders

Crimean Tatars. When Modern Times finally manages to get a meeting in Kyiv with the Nelson Mandela of the region, we meet a man who bears the signs of having been fighting for a lifetime.

Is there any difference between today’s Russia and the old Soviet treatment of the Tatars? «Our basic struggle is the same, against the same forces. Today’s occupiers of Crimea have the same mentality as those of the former Soviet Union. After 24 years of Ukrainian independence with democratic human rights, we are again under Soviet administration. As in the former Soviet Union, we do not have the right to freedom or freedom of speech, to express our thoughts.”

I ask him to be more specific, and he explains that the authorities are withholding information. You have to go abroad to get informed. But after the revolution that is now taking place in Ukraine, they now have a certain freedom with internet, radio and mass media, although these are controlled and under surveillance by Ukrainian authorities. «If you accuse the authorities today, you only get accusations directed at yourself, or fined later on», says Dzhemilev.

Then what about Crimea, what is really going on, in the eyes of an insider like the leader of the Crimean Tatars? «No one asked us for permission to send in foreign forces. The way I see it, they have never been welcomed by the population. The Crimean Tatars have fought this battle for independence for a long time, ever since the occupation in 1783! Throughout, we have been pressured to leave the country, ever since we made up 97% of the population. Before the deportation in 1944, we made up 25%, but this was improved after the return in 1989. But today, more than half are living in exile.»

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