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article imageCrimean Tatars freed by Russia after Putin-Erdogan talks

By Lilia BUDZHUROVA (AFP)     Oct 25, 2017 in World

Two Crimean Tatar activists sentenced for their political activities by Russian authorities in the annexed peninsula have been freed after an apparent agreement between the presidents of Russia and Turkey.

Ilmi Umerov and Akhtem Chiygoz flew to Turkey after their sudden release earlier Wednesday, according to supporters, who also said German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had been involved.

The men are two of the Crimean Tatars' most high profile community leaders and have irked Moscow by opposing its annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

The Crimean Tatars are a Turkic-speaking Muslim people native to Crimea who were deported under Stalin and only returned to the peninsula in the 1990s.

In September Chiygoz, 52, was jailed for eight years over deadly clashes at a rally.

Ailing Umerov, 60, was sentenced to two years in a penal colony on charges of separatism but was allowed to remain at home pending an appeal.

Supporters say the sentences were part of a vicious crackdown by the Kremlin-backed authorities on the ethnic group.

- FSB generals -

Mustafa Dzhemilev, the respected spiritual leader of the Crimean Tatar community, told AFP he had asked Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan to call for the activists' release in talks with Putin.

Erdogan has pledged to support Crimea's Tatar minority, who have maintained their Turkic language and Sunni Muslim religion in a region where the majority is Russian-speaking and Orthodox.

After Dzhemilev's request, two generals from the Russian FSB security service requested that Umerov and Chiygoz ask Putin for a pardon but the activists declined, he said.

"Afterwards we did not know what would happen," added Dzhemilev, who is also a Ukrainian lawmaker.

"Then we received information that there is apparently an order from Putin, without his signature though, which says that Ilmi Umerov and Akhtem Chiygoz are being freed on humanitarian grounds."

He added: "Apparently he signed off on it today."

The Kremlin did not provide an immediate comment.

"Active work over this issue has been going on for two weeks," Refat Chubarov, the head of the Crimean Tatars' banned assembly, the Mejlis, told AFP from the Ukrainian capital Kiev where he lives in exile.

He added that the activists would undergo a medical examination in Ankara and later travel to Kiev.

Under Stalin, the Tartars were accused of collaborating with Nazi Germany and deported to Central Asia. Nearly half of them died of starvation and disease.

They began returning to Crimea under Mikhail Gorbachev, and became Ukrainian nationals after independence in 1991.

'Titanic efforts'

Writing on Twitter, Poroshenko thanked Erdogan for "his efforts in freeing our heroes as we agreed in New York and Kiev".

Defence lawyer Nikolai Polozov said their release was "a natural result of titanic efforts (and) successfully conducted legal, political and diplomatic work".

Umerov suffers from Parkinson's disease, diabetes and other conditions and his defence argued that he would not be able to serve a prison term.

In May last year, Russia charged Umerov with making public calls to change Russia's borders after he said on Crimean Tatar television that Crimea should be returned to Ukraine.

His trial began in 2016, when he was forcibly detained in a psychiatric hospital for three weeks to undergo testing.

Chiygoz was arrested in 2015 and in September was jailed for eight years over deadly clashes at a rally, in a trial Amnesty International called a "sham".

Crimea's 300,000 Tatars largely boycotted a disputed referendum in which nearly 97 percent of voters -- mainly from the region's Russian-speaking majority -- chose to split from Ukraine.

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