Thousands mark Crimean Tatar deportation despite ban
Thousands of Tatars in Crimea marked the 70th anniversary of the community's deportation by Stalin on Sunday amid tight security and despite an official ban.
There were no reports of unrest even though tensions have been running high between the Turkic-speaking Muslim community and local authorities since Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula in March.
An AFP reporter said up to 20,000 Tatars took part in a rally in the rain in the Ak-Mechet district a few kilometres from the centre of the regional capital Simferopol.
Carrying placards calling for "self-determination", they prayed to the memories of the victims of the deportation.
A resolution was adopted calling for "territorial autonomy" for the community, Tatar representatives in the Crimean government and "an end to discrimination against and the repression of the Tatars of Crimea".
There was a heavy police presence in Simferopol, with armoured vehicles parked on street corners and two loud military helicopters flying low over the rally.
Community leaders had called off a traditional rally in Simferopol's central square after local authorities banned all mass gatherings until June 6 amid fears they would descend into violence.
Tens of thousands usually gather in central Simferopol for the rally, marking the day on May 18, 1944, when Soviet secret police began shipping Crimean Tatars to Central Asia.
Refat Chubarov, the leader of the Tatar assembly, or Mejlis, told reporters the rally ban had raised concerns about Russia's respect for their rights.
"We heard (from Russian authorities) that they will restore our rights. But at the same time we have problems organising and conducting commemorative events to remember the victims of the deportation," he said.
"No people can exist if it can't preserve its historical memory, especially when we are talking about the fates of hundreds of thousands of victims."
Some 200,000 Crimean Tatars were deported under Stalin, accused of collaborating with Nazi Germany during its World War II occupation of the Black Sea peninsula.
Many families returned in the late 1980s but distrust has lingered, and there are ongoing disputes over land ownership.
The United Nations on Friday voiced concern about "serious problems" of harassment and persecution of the community since the annexation.
US Secretary of State John Kerry also denounced fresh rights abuses, saying in a statement: "Murder, beatings and the kidnapping of Crimean Tatars and others have become standard fare."
© 2014 AFP