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What is happening to the political prisoners held by Russia — the story of Nariman Dzhelyal

Mykola Polozov, the lawyer, provides an update on the situation of Nariman Dzhelyal, a Ukrainian Crimean Tatar political prisoner of the Russian regime. Additionally, we will learn about the current situation in the country regarding the exchanges of political prisoners.

What is happening to the political prisoners held by Russia — the story of Nariman Dzhelyal
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Nariman Dzhelyal is a Ukrainian Crimean Tatar politician, lecturer, political scientist, and journalist, and is currently a political prisoner of the Russian regime. He is the Deputy Chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people. The Russian occupation regime in Crimea detained Nariman Dzhelyal on September 6, 2021. Along with his brothers Asan and Aziz Akhtemov, the FSB accused him of allegedly blowing up a gas pipeline in occupied Crimea. Nariman was sentenced to 17 years in prison.

What is known about Nariman Dzhelyal’s condition

Mykola Polozov: During his stay in the Simferopol SIZO-2, Nariman’s routine was illegally restricted. He was forbidden to lie down on the bed during the day, forcing him to spend the entire day on his feet. This led to an exacerbation of vascular diseases.

Following this, he faced one of the most difficult challenges for a detainee—a long journey covering several thousand kilometers. Currently, he remains in this condition in the prison in Minusinsk, where he was transferred.

Undoubtedly, the conditions in Russian prisons do not contribute to one’s health. Consequently, the chronic diseases he had and the consequences of his captivity are taking a toll on him.

However, despite his situation, he has not yet had the chance to meet with his family. All the information we receive comes from the few letters Nariman manages to send, which understandably do not fully describe his condition. We anticipate that after Nariman’s meeting with his wife, more information about his health will become available.

Regarding the meeting itself, Nariman’s 17-year prison sentence was supplemented by the most severe conditions of detention for the first 5 years. This means he is only allowed one long visit and two short ones per year, and can only have one transfer annually. There are also restrictions on his walking time, among other limitations. In essence, he is enduring the most challenging conditions.

Despite several canceled appointments, even though his wife submitted the necessary applications and there was a schedule, she was informed that the meeting was not possible at that time. However, if everything proceeds as expected after the resubmission of documents, the meeting will likely take place in July.


Read also: Mykola Medyk’s health has not improved — the story of a 69-year-old man illegally detained by the Russians


More about the reason for Nariman’s persecution and his views

Mykola Polozov: Nariman Dzhelyal is one of the most prominent representatives of the Crimean Tatar people, distinguished as a journalist, teacher, and political scientist. He is a highly intelligent and educated individual who has dedicated his life to advocating for the rights of his compatriots.

Following Russia’s expulsion of Crimean Tatar leaders Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov from Crimea at the onset of the 2014 occupation, Nariman emerged as one of the most influential figures on the peninsula.

The motive behind his persecution is undoubtedly retaliation for his active public political stance—his unwavering support for Ukraine, his advocacy for Crimean Tatar rights, and his opposition to imperialism. This persecution represents clear political repression.

Formally, the occupiers concocted the pretext that Nariman was involved in the alleged sabotage of a gas pipeline. However, these accusations rely on testimony from anonymous witnesses, making verification impossible. It is evident that this trial was entirely fabricated, with the sole purpose of quelling resistance among Crimean Tatars and residents of Crimea living under occupation.

Nariman Dzhelyal was singled out to play the role of such a victim due to his continued prominence as a political activist in Crimea, indicating that Russian special services had long kept tabs on him.

Despite pressure, Nariman publicly declared his resolve to remain in Crimea. The fight to reclaim their homeland has been the paramount focus for Crimean Tatars for many decades, motivating him to stay.

Nariman’s steadfast character has enabled him to maintain his pre-incarceration convictions. The Russian prison system may not break him, but it can severely restrict his communication, including with the outside world.

His correspondence is subject to strict censorship, limiting him to domestic topics. Any hint of social or political content results in the letter being withheld.

Currently, he shares a small cell with a cellmate, adhering to a strict schedule. Unlike penal colonies where there is more space and interaction with others, prison entails confinement within four walls and limited interaction solely with fellow prisoners.


Read also: Occupiers confirmed his innocence, but used him as a slave — stories of missing Balakliya residents


Are political prisoners сurrently included in exchanges

Mykola Polozov: There has not been a single exchange of political prisoners since 2019. It will soon be 5 years since nothing has happened. During a full-scale invasion, the problem of political prisoners is being replaced by other issues. Additionally, there is now a significant problem of civilians illegally detained by the Russians.

That is, if we are talking about the number of Ukrainian political prisoners, according to various estimates, it is between 200 and 300 people. However, the Russian authorities are currently holding thousands of illegally detained civilians from the occupied territories without court decisions or cases.

Russia is deliberately evading compliance with international humanitarian law. In fact, we are facing a humanitarian catastrophe. Civilians have been in the «grey zone» for weeks, months, some even years, and there is no way to get them out.

Accordingly, against this background, the issue of negotiations on political prisoners is postponed. Therefore, unfortunately, in the long term, I do not see any instruments of influence on the Russian authorities that would allow the return of Ukrainian political prisoners.

At the same time, we need to work with international institutions, European institutions. Sooner or later, the war will end, and by that time, human rights organizations should have information about the political prisoners held by Russia in order to ensure their return home as quickly as possible at the right time.

Ukraine will strengthen its unity, faith in itself, and its own strength.

Ukraine has offered the Kremlin various options for resolving the issue. For example, before the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, there was a proposal to exchange Muslims «all for all». Russia refused. They are not ready to give up civilians now.

The Kremlin understands its demographic advantage in a time of war. Therefore, their task is to prevent Ukraine from returning its people. At the same time, those Russian soldiers who are in Ukrainian captivity are not particularly interesting to the Kremlin. They are «expendable».

When Russian «cannon fodder» is captured in Ukraine, Russia does not feel sorry for them. The Kremlin believes that it is profitable not to give up prisoners and not to take their own. They are ready to hold thousands of people to prevent them from returning to Ukraine and going to war.

The Russian authorities are making great efforts to conceal information about captured and illegally detained civilians. They were obliged to set up a special information bureau where one could apply for information about captured Ukrainian citizens. This was not done.

At present, the communication process is structured in such a way that relevant requests are sent to various Russian state institutions. Sometimes we manage to get some information. But for the full two years of work, these are several hundred people, most of them military personnel, although sometimes there is information about civilians.

Is it possible to combine exchange negotiation tracks

Mykola Polozov: This is probably happening by itself. That is, Russia passes a certain percentage of captured civilians through this criminal case pipeline, and they automatically become political prisoners.

The main problem is that either the Russian authorities want to get some of their agents in return, or they propose to «exchange civilians». But there is no such exchange fund in Ukraine. We cannot, like Russia, imprison their citizens absolutely illegally. Moreover, the Kremlin does not need these people at all.

Therefore, there is currently no effective solution to this problem.


Read also: «No one has seen my son» — mother of Mykola Shcherbyna, illegally detained by the Russians


In times of war, the program «Free our relatives» tells the stories of people, cities, villages, and entire regions that have been captured by Russian invaders. We discuss the war crimes committed by the Kremlin and its troops against the Ukrainian people.

The program is hosted by Ihor Kotelyanets and Anastasia Bagalika.


This publication is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in the framework of the Human Rights in Action Program implemented by Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union. Opinions, conclusions and recommendations presented in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID, the United States Government. The contents are the responsibility of the authors.

USAID is the world’s premier international development agency and a catalytic actor driving development results. USAID’s work demonstrates American generosity, and promotes a path to recipient self-reliance and resilience, and advances U.S. national security and economic prosperity. USAID has partnered with Ukraine since 1992, providing more than $9 billion in assistance. USAID’s current strategic priorities include strengthening democracy and good governance, promoting economic development and energy security, improving health care systems, and mitigating the effects of the conflict in the east.

For additional information about USAID in Ukraine, please call USAID’s Development Outreach and Communications Office at: +38 (044) 521-5753. You may also visit our website: http://www.usaid.gov/ukraine or our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/USAIDUkraine.

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