On an autumn evening on a highway between Simferopol and Belogorsk, a white van pulled up next to two young Crimean Tatar men who were walking on the street. Several unknown men jumped out and pushed 18-year-old Islyam Dzheparov and 23-year-old Dzhebdet Islyamov into the vehicle.
The van drove off and the two men have not been seen or heard from since.
The abduction, which took place on September 27, is just one in a series of incidents of harassment and intimidation directed against the Crimean Tatar community since Russia annexed the peninsula from Ukraine in March. The campaign has included both legal and extrajudicial measures and has ranged from petty harassment to torture and killings, activists say.
In addition to other abductions, it has included raids on mosques, criminal cases against Tatar leaders, and the barring of top figures like Mustafa Dzhemilev from the territory.
"What happened the other night is extremely bad," says Mustafa Asaba, head of the regional Crimean Tatar mejlis in Belogorsk, where the two abducted men are from. "I think it is outrageous, completely outrageous. If there were some questions for these young people or anything like that, there are official organs, the police. They could have been summoned for questioning."
About 150 locals in Belogorsk, an ethnically mixed town about 40 kilometers northeast of Simferopol, gathered on September 29 to pray for the men and to urge the authorities to investigate the incident.
The Crimean branch of Russia's Investigative Committee announced the same day that it has launched a probe into the disappearances.
"This is an attack on Crimean Tatars," one activist told the gathering. "Our only guilt is that we are Crimean Tatars, Muslims. I don't see any other motives here. They want to frighten us and drive us into a corner."
In May, four Crimean Tatar activists -- Leonid Korzh, Timur Shaimardanov, Vasily Chernysh, and Seiran Zinedinov -- also disappeared without a trace. Their relatives claim they were abducted by Russian security agents. The de facto authorities in Crimea, a Black Sea region of Ukraine that was annexed by Russia in March, have not responded to repeated inquiries for information.
On March 16, Crimean Tatar Reshat Ametov was found killed after disappearing during a Simferopol protest on March 3, according to Human Rights Watch. The body bore "marks of a violent death," the NGO reported, saying a "climate of lawlessness" is "pervasive in Crimea."
When Russia took over Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to reach out to Crimean Tatars, who were brutally deported from the peninsula by Joseph Stalin in 1944 and only allowed to begin returning in the final days of the Soviet Union.
However, in the months since annexation, Crimean Tatars have been subjected to gradually intensifying pressure from the authorities in Crimea. Dzhemilev, their leader, has been barred from entering the peninsula. His son has been arrested and taken to Russia, accused of murder and weapons possession.
Last month, the Crimean Tatar representative organ in Simferopol, the Mejlis, was raided by police and armed, masked men. Other Crimean Tatars have had their homes and offices searched.
Crimean Tatar representatives were prevented by Russian authorities from attending a United Nations World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in New York last month. Russia also protested against the participation of Dzhemilev and fellow Crimean Tatar leader, Refat Chubarov, in the conference.
On September 21, "Kommersant" published an interview with Crimea's de facto head, Sergei Aksyonov, in which he accused Crimean Tatars of "morally humiliating Russians" by commemorating the 1944 deportation and threatened that they could be deported again if they "pit people against each other on interethnic grounds."
Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muiznieks raised the issue at a meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on October 1.
"My biggest concern, to be honest, is the situation of the Crimean Tatars -- a population with a very tragic history," Muiznieks said. "There is an urgent need to strengthen their sense of security, which has been shattered by a series of raids by armed, masked security personnel in religious institutions, schools, Tatar-owned businesses, private homes, and, after my visit, to the Mejlis."
He said the authorities claim to be carrying out the raids in search of weapons or allegedly extremist literature.
"The Crimean Tatars have no history of violence or extremism and the raids are completely disproportionate and should be stopped," he concluded.
Dzhemilev was quoted on October 1 as saying "the Crimean Tatar nation is now in a most complicated and dangerous position since it has always spoken out against the illegal occupation [of Crimea by Russia]."
With reporting from Belogorsk, Ukraine, by RFE/RL correspondent Emir Dostim.
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