Europe

Crimean Tatar activists freed by Russia, flown to Turkey

Ilmi Umerov. File photo Image copyright AFP/Getty Images
Image caption Ilmi Umerov was given a two-year jail term by a Russian court for separatism

Two Crimean Tatars who were imprisoned for opposing Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine have been freed and flown to Turkey, their families and lawyers say.

Ahmet Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov were released after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan personally intervened on their behalf, Ukrainian officials say.

Both have repeatedly denied the charges against them, describing them as politically motivated.

Moscow has so far made no comment.

Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in March 2014, triggering widespread international condemnation.

In September, a Russian court jailed Mr Chiygoz for eight years for "stirring up protests" in February 2014. Mr Umerov got a two-year term for "separatism".

On Wednesday, defence lawyer Nikolai Polozov hailed their release on his Facebook page (in Russian).

"What everyone had been waiting for so long has happened. Two more hostages, two Ukrainian political prisoners, have gained their freedom," he said.

Meanwhile in a tweet (in Ukrainian), Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko thanked President Erdogan for his efforts in helping free "our heroes".

Ukrainian officials say Mr Chiygoz and Mr Umerov were first taken from Crimea to Russia's Krasnodar region and then flown to the Turkish capital Ankara.

President Erdogan had reportedly discussed the matter during his recent visits to Moscow and Kiev.

Ruslan Balbek, a Russian lawmaker elected from the annexed Crimea, said the peninsula's Mufti had written to Russian President Vladimir Putin, asking to pardon the two men.

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Media captionFebruary 2014: BBC correspondents reported on the rival rallies in Simferopol

Mr Chiygoz, a 52-year old deputy chairman of the Crimean Tatar parliament, the Mejlis, took part in a rally backing Crimea's Ukrainian status in February 2014. Clashes with pro-Russian protesters left two people dead.

His lawyer had argued that the sentence in September was unlawful and that he would seek his client's extradition to Ukraine.

The Turkic-speaking Tatars make up about 12% of Crimea's population and their parliament was legally recognised by Ukraine in 1999.

But Russia banned the Mejlis last year, describing it as an extremist organisation.

Mr Umerov, 60, was sentenced to two years in prison for publicly stating that Crimea was part of Ukraine.

His lawyers had said during the trial that their client, who has Parkinson's disease and diabetes, would die if sent to jail.

A UN report last month said Russia had committed grave human rights violations in Crimea since it took over the peninsula.

Moscow rejected the accusation.

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