Chechnya verdict could mark new purge of human rights activists
Lawyers and colleagues say case against Oyub Titiev was fabricated to punish him for his work
A court in Chechnya will deliver a verdict in the trial of a prominent human rights worker on Monday that could mark a new purge of activists from the Russian republic.
Oyub Titiev, the local head of the human rights organisation Memorial, has been accused of marijuana possession, as part of a case that his lawyers say was fabricated to punish him for his work documenting human rights abuses. The prosecution has asked for a sentence of four years in prison.
The case may also mark a new stage in the region’s crackdown on dissent. Chechnya’s strongman leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has said that the government will no longer tolerate human rights activists.
“I officially declare to human rights activists: after the end of the trial, Chechnya will be forbidden territory for them, like it is for terrorists and extremists,” Kadyrov said last August in a speech to local law enforcement broadcast on local television.
Western countries applied sanctions against Kadyrov following revelations about the secret arrest and torture of dozens of gay people in Chechnya in 2017. Three people were reported to have died in the pogrom. Kadyrov framed action against human rights groups as a tit-for-tat move.
“Since I can’t go to Europe and the west, I say: their employees, the ones who call themselves human rights activists, will not have the right to travel in my territory,” he said.
Activists should have legal protections in Chechnya but in the region Kadyrov’s word is law.
For years, Chechnya has been one of the most dangerous regions in Russia for human rights activists and journalists. Natalya Estemirova, a former head of Memorial’s Chechnya branch, was abducted in Grozny, driven out of town and shot to death in 2009. In 2016, masked attackers brutally beat eight journalists and human rights activists traveling into Chechnya, and set fire to their minibus. A week later, Igor Kalyapin, the head of the Committee to Prevent Torture, was attacked in the region’s capital.
The campaign of intimidation has continued during Titiev’s case. One lawyer fled his legal team over threats. An office space and an automobile used by colleagues have been destroyed in arson attacks.
Colleagues have said they expect Titiev to be found guilty. Oleg Orlov, a senior Memorial member, wrote that the case was “fabricated” and was “effectively of a political nature”. Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch called the case a “show trial”.
The specific reason Titiev was arrested is unclear. Memorial has always been a target for Kadyrov’s anger. The activist had been documenting cases of secret and illegal detentions of Chechens by the security forces, although according to colleagues, not the cases involving the gay purges.
The widespread condemnation of the Chechen leader in recent years, and measures such as the closure of his Instagram account, are said to have angered Kadyrov, who has sought ways to lash out at his critics.
“Kadyrov and top leaders in Chechnya have had human rights activists and investigative journalists in their crosshairs since the anti-gay purge,” Denber said in an interview in Moscow last week.
Titiev, who has worked for Memorial for nearly two decades and lives in Chechnya, was an easy target. In his closing remarks in court last week, he said he knew he would be found guilty.
“How many human rights activists can be murdered or put behind bars?” Titiev said. “When, finally, will the authorities pay attention to this?”