“We are the black people.” The case against Bashkir activist Fayel Alsynov, whose trial today drew hundreds (or thousands) of people
Алла Константинова
“We are the black people.” The case against Bashkir activist Fayel Alsynov, whose trial today drew hundreds (or thousands) of people
15 January 2024, 20:34

Fayel Alsynov outside the courthouse, January 15, 2024. Screenshot: RusNews

This morning, the Baimak District Court in Bashkortostan (Bashkiria), a Russian republic in the Southern Urals with significant Bashkir population, was expected to deliver a verdict against activist Fayel Alsynov, who has been accused by the republic’s head of inciting hatred towards other ethnic groups. The charges stem from Alsynov’s speech at a village meeting. Two words in Bashkir—“kara halyk,” meaning “black people”—were interpreted by the prosecution as an insult to residents of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Alsynov, who faces up to four years in a penal colony, insists he was referring to the common folk. Despite the cold (–25°C/-13°F), hundreds of people turned up to support the defendant.

On the morning of January 15t, a dense crowd surrounded the district court building in the small town of Baimak, Bashkortostan (population less than 18,000). According to the local Telegram channel Kushtau Bayram, nearly five thousand people gathered there. They came to support Fayel Alsynov, who was expected to receive his sentence today in a case of inciting ethnic strife, but the court postponed the announcement until January 17.

Fayel Alsynov is one of the defenders of the Kushtau hill and co-chair of the Bashkort organization, banned in Russia and declared extremist by the Supreme Court of Bashkortostan in 2020. That same year, regional authorities decided to allow the Bashkir Soda Company to mine for limestone for soda production, sparking outrage among locals and leading to mass protests.

In recent years, Alsynov and his associates have campaigned for the preservation of the Bashkir language in the republic. In December 2022, the Kirov District Court of Ufa fined him 10,000 rubles for a VK post published on the first day of mobilization. In the post, Alsynov called the events a “genocide of the Bashkir people,” adding that the war against Ukraine was “not our war.”

Three months later, in March 2023, FSB agents conducted searches at Alsynov’s and another Kushtau defender, Ilnar Galin’s homes. The reason for these actions was not disclosed to the activists at the time.

“Asserting exclusive rights of the Bashkirs.” The allegations against Alsynov

In May 2023, the head of Bashkortostan, Radiy Khabirov, filed a complaint against Alsynov with the prosecutor’s office. The complaint was based on a speech in Bashkir that Alsynov delivered at a gathering in the village of Ishmurzino, Baimak District. In April 2023, about a thousand participants of the village gathering opposed the plans of gold miners to start mining near Ishmurzino. They demanded that the authorities of Bashkortostan not issue licenses for exploration and mining without the consent of the people’s assemblies, as reported by Idel.Realii. Earlier, in February 2023, residents of the Abzelilovsky District of Bashkortostan also demanded the cessation of gold mining near their villages.

“In his speech, he [Alsynov] contrasted the Bashkir people with representatives of the Armenian, Russian, and Tatar nations, asserting the exclusive rights of the Bashkirs to the natural resources of the Bashkir Zauralie, thereby publicly establishing property rights limitations based on nationality,” wrote Khabirov in his complaint to the prosecutor’s office. The republic’s head added that Alsynov “calls for opposition to the federal authorities, allegedly infringing the rights of the Bashkir people,” and requested an investigation of the activist under the article on “discrediting” the Russian army.

Fayel Alsynov was detained on October 12, 2023, following searches at his and his parents’ apartments. It was then revealed that the Investigative Committee of Bashkortostan had initiated a criminal case against Alsynov in August for inciting hatred. According to the investigator, Alsynov’s speech at the village gathering deliberately offended “residents of the Caucasus or Central Asia” and “Armenians.” Alsynov, who did not admit guilt, was released on a non-travel restriction, and the Baimak Court announced that hearings in the case would be held in closed session.

“Revenge for Kushtau.” How the Bashkirs support Alsynov

“The entire crowd is chanting ‘Bez kara halyk, bez kara halyk…!’, which translates to ‘We are the black people’,” wrote the Telegram channel Kushtau Bayram on the morning of January 15, describing the scene outside the court. “It is precisely this colloquial expression that formed the basis of the accusations of extremism and incitement of hatred against [Alsynov].”

As Fayel Alsynov himself states, the entire case against him is based on a misunderstanding of the phrase “kara halyk,” which he used in his speech. “The Armenians will go to their homeland, ‘kara halyk’—to their own, Russians—to their Ryazan, Tatars—to their Tatarstan,” quotes Idel.Realii from a fragment of his speech in April.

In front of the courthouse, January 15, 2024. Screenshot: RusNews

The court-appointed expert, Aynur Khuzyakhmetov from the Ufa University of Science and Technology, who previously provided testimony in the case of the banned organization Bashkort, of which Alsynov was co-chair, conducted the expert analysis. In his report, Khuzyakhmetov stated that the phrase “kara halyk” literally translates as “black people” and is roughly equivalent to the offensive Russian terms “khachi,” “churki,” and “chernomaziye.” He added that this is a “general designation for the peoples of the Caucasus and Central Asia,” and that Alsynov used derogatory language to “express a negative assessment” of these ethnic groups.

Alsynov and his supporters believe that first the head of the region, Radiy Khabirov, and then the Investigative Committee simply mistranslated Alsynov’s speech from Bashkir. For example, the Telegram channel Irandyksky Sabantuy writes about an incorrect translation of the penultimate paragraph: “Был беҙҙең еребеҙ, беҙ күсеп китә алмайбыҙ!” (translated as “This is our land, we cannot relocate”), but Khabirov translated it in his own way and wrote: “Strangers come and take our land.” This sentence is not complete; it’s taken out of context, as Alsynov was saying that a woman—a fellow traveler from the Abzelilovsky District—is afraid to touch gold from a water well in her yard, while people from outside are brought in and take the lands.”

Idel.Realii adds that the phrase “kara halyk” usually means “common folk” among the Bashkirs, and the expression originated during the times of the Mongolian Golden Horde rule, carrying no derogatory connotation.

However, the court rejected the defense’s request for an independent linguistic analysis, Alsynov told journalists after the previous session on January 11. On that day, the prosecutor requested four years in a penal colony for him.

Supporters of the activist call him “the leader of the Bashkir people” and say that the current trial is “revenge on Fayel for Kushtau,” as quoted by Idel.Realii.

On January 15, those gathered outside the court demanded the resignation of the regional head, Radiy Khabirov. Every time after the sessions, people greet Alsynov with an ovation—although they are not allowed into the courthouse, even though it’s currently very cold outside. After the session on January 15, locals surrounded the activist, began to hug him, and chanted his name. The meeting was captured in a video published by Kushtau Bayram—Fayel Alsynov, moved to tears, covers his face with a hat.

“We are not extremists, we are not Nazis, we are people who want respect for our constitutional rights. We want the law to be upheld. The law should not be enforced solely to please one leader, Khabirov,” says one of the speakers at the rally.

Editor: Dmitry Tkachev

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