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Russia holding Crimean Tatar activist in psychiatric ward

International rights groups and Ukrainian officials protested Friday against the incarceration in a psychiatric hospital of a prominent Crimean Tatar activist charged with extremism in the Russian-annexed peninsula.

Human Rights Watch on Friday called on the Russian authorities in Crimea to release activist Ilmi Umerov, drop criminal separatism charges against him, and ensure he receives the medical care he requires.

Since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Russian authorities have harshly cracked down on the Crimean Tatars, a Muslim minority group whose members largely opposed the takeover of the peninsula and who were persecuted under Stalin.

Umerov, 59, has been held in a psychiatric hospital in the main Crimean city of Simferopol since August 18 after investigators requested that his sanity be tested.

His lawyer Nikolai Polozov told AFP that Umerov had been moved there from an ordinary hospital where he was receiving treatment for high blood pressure and a heart condition.

“His life remains in danger,” Polozov said, adding that his client was suffering from spikes in blood pressure.

“The fact that they are holding him (in hospital) is undoubtedly an element of pressure on him.”

In May, Umerov was charged with calling for breaching Russia’s territorial integrity on Crimean television channel ATR, an offence which risks a jail term of up to five years.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin compared Umerov’s detention to the Soviet-era practice of holding dissidents in psychiatric hospitals.

“Punitive psychiatry is a return to the terrible times of the NKVD,” Klimkin wrote on Twitter, referring to the secret police under Stalin.

He and other supporters of Umerov posted the hashtag #StopKillingIlmiUmerov.

Umerov was a longtime head of the peninsula’s Bakhchysaray district, resigning when it moved under Moscow’s control.

He was also the deputy chairman of the Crimean Tatars’ elected governing body, which the Russian authorities have declared extremist.

Polozov stressed that Umerov is mentally “totally healthy” and that he should have had the right to refuse psychiatric testing.

Polozov said the psychiatric hospital where Umerov is being held has no heart specialists and “if something happens to him, the emergency care won’t come in time”.