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Mustafa Jemilev Celebrates His 60th Birthday

On the occasion of his 60th birthday, we extend our best wishes to Mustafa Jemilev, Chairman of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis and a member of the Ukrainian Parliament. Also known as Mustafa Abdulcemil Kirimoglu, especially among the Turkish and Tatar speaking circles, Jemilev is the recognized leader of the Crimean Tatar National Movement, a former Soviet dissident who spent nearly one fourth of his life in Soviet prisons and labor camps, and a recipient of the Nansen Medal, awarded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Jemilev was born in Crimea on 13 November 1943. He was only six months old when his family and the rest of the Crimean Tatar population were deported by Soviet authorities in May 1944. His family lived in a special settlement camp in the Andijan region of Uzbekistan until 1955, when tight restrictions were relaxed. At the age of 18, he and several of his activist friends established the Union of Young Crimean Tatars. He thus began the arduous and long struggle for the recognition of the rights of Crimean Tatars to return to their homeland. His first arrest came in 1966, when he was sentenced for refusing to serve in the Soviet Army. In the next twenty years, Jemilev was arrested six times for anti-Soviet activities and served time in Soviet prisons and labor camps, or lived under surveillance.

In the late 1960s, he established contact with the Soviet human rights advocates in Moscow. With Andrei Sakharov, Petr Grigorenko and other dissidents, he co-founded the Initiative Group for the Defense of Human Rights in the USSR. The contact with the Moscow group was a prudent move, as it helped direct outside attention to Crimean Tatars, their struggle for civil rights and their predicament in forced exile. Jemilev is also remembered for going on the longest hunger strike in the history of human rights movement. The hunger strike, which lasted for 303 days (but he survived due to forced feeding), led to demonstrations and letter writing campaigns by dissidents and sympathizers, and further drew world's attention to Crimean Tatars.

In 1986, as Jemilev was completing his sixth prison term in a hard-labor camp, he was charged and tried for anti-Soviet activities once again. During the summit held by Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, however, the American President asked for the release of five political prisoners as part of the negotiations. Jemilev was one of those prisoners and he was released with the condition that he refrain from any political activity.

In 1987, Jemilev joined the Central Initiative Group of Crimean Tatars, then the backbone of their national movement. In May 1989, he was elected to head the newly founded Crimean Tatar National Movement. The same year he returned to Crimea with his family, a move that would be followed by the eventual return of 250,000 Tatars to their homeland. In October 1998, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees awarded Jemilev the Nansen Medal for his outstanding efforts and "his commitment to the right of return of the Crimean Tatars." The Nansen Medal is given annually to recognize exceptional service to the betterment of refugees.

The Crimean Tatar National Movement has so far succeeded in bringing back only half of the Crimean Tatar population. About 250,000 Tatars still live in exile in Central Asia. The repatriation process is by no means complete. Those who returned to Crimea continue to experience social, political and economic hardships in their own homeland. What has characterized the Crimean Tatar National Movement, however, is the absence of violence. The leadership has always sought to solve conflicts by non-violent means. In an interview Jemilev gave shortly after receiving the Nansen Medal in October 1998, he emphasized that "when violent means are used innocent people die, and no just cause can justify the taking of innocent lives." Jemilev's commitment to non-violence deserves our utmost respect and admiration.

On the eve of the 60th birthday of Mustafa Jemilev, we wish him and the Crimean Tatar leadership well. May the path to repatriation be less thorny than it has been so far.

Inci Bowman, Ph.D.
International Committee for Crimea

12 November 2003

For further information about Mustafa Jemilev, see the following online sources:

"The Crimean Tatars' Thorny Path to Their Homeland" by Mustafa Jemilev, 1994

"How Can We Right the Injustices Inflicted on Our People?"
Interview with M. Jemilev, conducted by RFL/RL reporter Charles Carson, June 2003

Interview with Mustafa Jemilev, conducted by Tamara Tarnawka, October 1998

"My Impressions of Mustafa Jemilev" by Sabirzyan Badretdin, May 1998

Interview with M. Cemiloglu, conducted by Ursula Doroszewska, May 1994

Interview with M. Cemiloglu, conducted by Ursula Doroszewska, September 1992

There are also two more press interviews with Mustafa Jemilev, May 2002 and August 2003, posted to Crimean Aspects Web site:

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