Two Crimean Tatar activists sentenced for political activities by Russian authorities have been freed after an intervention by Turkey's president. The men were jailed as Moscow clamped down on the separatists.
Ilmi Umerov and Akhtem Chiygoz - two of the Crimean Tatars' most high profile community leaders - flew to Turkey on Wednesday after their sudden release, according to defense lawyer for the Crimean Tatars, Nikolai Polozov.
"What everyone had been waiting for so long, has happened," Polozov wrote on his Facebook page. "Two more hostages, two Ukrainian political prisoners have gained their freedom." Polozov would not say if they had been pardoned.
Umerov, who had been deputy head of the Crimean Tatars' semi-official Mejlis legislature before it was suspended by Russia, was sentenced in September by a Russian court to two years for separatism.
In September, 52-year-old Chiygoz was jailed for eight years after being found guilty of taking part in deadly clashes at a rally.
Sixty-year old Umerov was sentenced to two years in a penal colony also on charges of separatism but was allowed to remain at home pending an appeal as he suffers from Parkinson's disease, diabetes and other conditions.
His defense lawyer argued he would not be able to serve a prison term.
Moscow annexed the peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.
Supporters say the sentences were part of a crackdown by the Kremlin-backed authorities on the ethnic group.
Moscow says the majority of Crimeans voted to join Russia in a referendum. Most of Crimea's 300,000 Tatars boycotted the vote in which nearly 97 percent of voters chose to split from Ukraine.
The Crimean Tatars are a Turkic-speaking Muslim people native to Crimea. The were deported under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and returned to the peninsula in the 1990s.
Mustafa Dzhemilev, the spiritual leader of the Crimean Tatar community, told the French news agency AFP he had asked Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan to call for the activists' release in recent talks with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
"Afterwards we did not know what would happen," added Dzhemilev, who is also a Ukrainian MP.
"Then we received information that there is apparently an order from Putin, without his signature though, which says that Ilmi Umerov and Akhtem Chiygoz are being freed on humanitarian grounds."
Erdogan has pledged to support Crimea's Tatar minority, who have maintained their Turkic language and Sunni Muslim religion in a region where the majority is Russian-speaking and Orthodox.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in a tweet on Wednesday thanked the Turkish president for his help in mediating the releases.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was also reportedly involved.
jbh/rc (AFP, Reuters, AP)