Crimea Tatars say leader banned by Russia from returning

Alastair Macdonald

By Alastair Macdonald

KIEV (Reuters) - Crimea's Tatar community assembly accused Russia on Tuesday of barring its leading political figure from returning to the peninsula following its annexation by Moscow.

However, Russian officials declined comment and it was unclear whether Moscow had taken issued the banning order.

In an online statement, the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People said Mustafa Dzhemilev, a member of the Ukrainian parliament and the former chairman of the Mejlis, had been handed a notice banning him from Russia for five years as he crossed back to mainland Ukraine after a weekend in Crimea.

It carried a photograph of a typed sheet of paper, unsigned and without letterhead, headed: "Notification of non-permission of entry to the Russian Federation". It said "Mustafa Dzhemilev ... citizen of Ukraine" was denied entry to Russia on the basis of federal law for five years until April 19, 2019.

Russia's Federal Migration Service declined comment. No immediate comment was available from the Foreign Ministry.

Dzhemilev, speaking later to Ukraine's Channel 5 television, noted the lack of signature on the document and said he did not know whether it came from the Russian government. The man who gave it to him did not identify himself.

He said he did not intend to stop spending time in Crimea.

Russia has yet to establish a full international land border crossing out of Crimea, which Ukraine and Western powers regard as Ukrainian territory. Since shortly after the overthrow of the Kremlin-backed president in Kiev, local pro-Russian militias in Crimea have been checking traffic from the mainland.

The Mejlis allegation came a day after President Vladimir Putin made a gesture toward the Crimean Tatars, many of whom wanted to remain Ukrainian, by signing a decree ruling their mass deportation by Stalin in the 1940s illegal and guaranteeing autonomous rights for them and other minorities.

A Turkic-speaking, Muslim community, long present on the Black Sea, Tatars make up about 12 percent of Crimea's 2 million population. Deported to central Asia on suspicion of aiding Nazi German invaders, they began to return in the 1980s and in large numbers after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Mejlis was recognized by the Ukrainian state in the 1990s as a representative body for the Tatars. Dzhemilev, 70, was its chairman from its foundation in 1991 until last year.

There have been tensions between Tatars in Crimea and pro-Russian separatists. On Monday, the Mejlis said unidentified men in camouflage forced their way into its building, which was largely empty for a holiday, and took down a Ukrainian flag.

(Reporting by Natalia Zinets; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)