Activists want Russia to acknowledge mass killings of Circassians in 19th century, some on Sochi soil
February 17, 2014 11:30AM ET
A man, right, wears the Circassian flag draped over his shoulders at a folk theater troupe performance at the Circassian House in Sochi’s Olympic Park. The Circassian House was hastily erected by Olympic organizers after regional authorities belatedly acknowledged that the Olympic sites were built on what was once Circassian land.
Russian authorities have arrested a leader of the country’s Circassian – or Adyghe – ethnic minority in a city not far from the site of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the latest incident in Russia’s crackdown on protesters against the embattled games.
Asker Sokht, widely considered a moderate among Circassian activists and even an ally to the Kremlin, was detained on Friday and sentenced to eight days in custody for hooliganism and disobeying police, activists said on Sunday. His arrest comes after dozens of Circassian activists were rounded up and detained on Feb. 7 while trying to hold a protest against the Olympics.
Sokht last week criticized games organizers for failing to acknowledge the Circassians in the Feb. 7 opening ceremony, which traced the history and cultural heritage of Russia through modern times.
“It is clear that behind the alleged hooliganism or disobeying charge against him are his critical statements about the Olympics in Sochi,” a Circassian activist group said in a letter addressed to the regional governor demanding Sokht’s release, according to Agence France-Presse.
Russian officials were not immediately available for comment on the arrest.
Hundreds of thousands of Circassians – upwards of 90% of the population by some estimates – were displaced from the Sochi region when the Tsarist army invaded the Persian-controlled North Caucasus, sparking a nearly 50-year war in which thousands of Circassians are believed to have been killed.
Most who managed to escape fled to the territory of what was then the Ottoman Empire, where many still reside – in modern-day Turkey, Syria, and Jordan.
A little under one million Circassians remain in the Russian Federation today.
Activists have been vocally opposed to holding the Games in Sochi, which they say is the site of their people’s final expulsion from Russia. No Sochi 2014, an anti-Olympics campaign, was formed in 2007 to “strip Russia of the Sochi Olympics based on it being the location of the Circassian Genocide.”
The games are viewed as particularly offensive to Circassians because they fall on the 150th anniversary of the alleged genocide, which concluded in 1864.
Circassian activists have unsuccessfully lobbied the government to acknowledge the killings. But they say the public spectacle of Sochi has awakened some dormant nationalist sentiment among the Circassian community in Russia.
“This is deeply sad for Circassians,” said Adam Bogus, the leader of a Circassian council in the town of Maykop, 150 miles from Sochi. “Even those who weren’t strongly associated with the nationalist movement and were fairly assimilated in Russia interpret this as an insult to the Circassian people.”
Russia’s crackdown on disaffected ethnic minorities has encompassed the North Caucasian regions of Chechnya and Dagestan, where an Islamic insurgency has rumbled off and on for decades. Citizens of those areas allege invasive security measures and racial profiling ahead of and during the Sochi games.
Al Jazeera and wire services