Carl Gershman’s Remarks During 2018 Democracy Service Medal Presentation to Mustafa Dzhemilev

Two traumatic events, 70 years apart, frame the life and struggles of Mustafa Dzhemilev.  The first was Stalin’s forced deportation of the Crimean Tatars to Central Asia on May 18, 1944, a crime that uprooted and decimated an entire people.  The second was Putin’s annexation of Crimea on March 18, 2014, an act of aggression that once again subjected the Crimean Tatars to cruel repression and also dealt a lethal blow to the post-Cold War world order.

Mustafa Dzjemilev has been the preeminent leader of the Crimean Tatars during these tumultuous years, helping them reclaim their homeland, defend their rights, and preserve their national identity.  

He was six months old when his family was deported in 1944, and he grew up in exile in the Uzbek Republic of the Soviet Union.  He began his long and arduous struggle for the rights of his people at the age of 18 when, with several of his activist friends, he established the Union of Young Crimean Tatars.  

He was arrested for the first of six times in 1966 and spent 15 years in Soviet prisons and labor camps.  In 1975 he went on a hunger strike for 303 days, surviving because he was forcibly fed and ending the strike only when his friend and fellow dissident Dr. Andrei Sakharov told him that “Your death will only benefit our enemies. I ask you to stop.”

[Let me interject here that today is the 11th day of the hunger strike of Oleg Sentsov, the Ukrainian filmmaker who was arrested in Crimea following the Russian annexation and sentenced to 20 years in prison.  He is being held in the very remote far-northern Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous region. He is demanding the release of 64 Ukrainians held as political prisoners in Russia.  We want him to know that he has our full solidarity in his struggle for justice, but that as Sakharov told Dzhemilev, we want him to live because he is a brave and good man whose death will only benefit his enemies.

Mustafa was sent to jail for the last time in 1983 for trying to return to Crimea to bury his father’s body in his homeland.  It was on Sakharov’s demand to Gorbachev that Mustafa was released in 1986, after which he brought a thousand Crimean Tatars to Red Square calling for their right to return home. As the opening and later collapse of the Soviet Union gathered momentum in the late 1980s, Mustafa was elected to lead the Crimean Tatar National Movement.  

He finally returned to Crimea in 1989 and was voted to head the traditional Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, in which capacity he worked to bring Crimean Tatars back from Central Asia and to resolve the tensions with Russians who had taken their homes during the Soviet era.  This period of national recovery ended with the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, after which the Mejlis was declared an extremist organization and banned by the Russian authorities.

Forced into exile once again, Mustafa has continued his struggle to end Russia’s illegal occupation and annexation of Crimea and to mobilize international condemnation of the massive human rights violations it has committed there, which include enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, and at least one extra-judicial execution.

Throughout his unending struggle for justice, Mustafa Dzhemilev has never wavered in his determination to defend the rights of the Crimean Tatars.  As he said in the closing statement of his trial in 1983, “Fourteen years ago I vowed that nobody ever under any circumstances would make me renounce my duty…Today I can repeat these vows and hope that I would have enough spiritual strength not to change this principle to the end of my days.”

He has not changed this principle.  It is therefore in recognition of his spiritual strength and devotion to the cause of democracy and nonviolence, and for his unyielding defense of the human dignity and national integrity of his people, the Crimean Tatars, that the National Endowment for Democracy is proud to honor Mustafa Dzjemilev with its Democracy Service Medal.