Court in Chechnya banishes human rights activist to penal colony

Andrew Roth in Shali


A court in Chechnya has sentenced a prominent human rights activist to four years in a penal colony after a widely condemned trial that culminated in the judge reading out the verdict for more than nine hours.

Oyub Titiev, the local head of the human rights group Memorial, was charged last year with possession of more than 200g of marijuana. Titiev said the drugs were planted in his car, and colleagues said he was being punished for revealing details of abductions and torture by Chechnya’s security services.

“I told him that I was worried about the consequences of his work, we had this conversation many times,” said Titiev’s brother Yakub. “But he is a principled man and he believes in his work.”

The case had already been considered an absurd example of the crackdown on dissent in the Russian republic. Titiev watched proceedings from inside a cage, leaning on the white bars as he listened to the judge read out the verdict. Many others in the court remained standing as day turned to night. Some relatives dozed, while journalists stretched by crouching down to the floor. Several European diplomats sent to observe the case left the courtroom after about six hours as it remained unclear if the judge would deliver a sentence that evening.

“The attitude was to show Titiev, do you want everything by the book? Well here you go, a little form of humiliation,” said Oleg Orlov, a member of the leadership team at Memorial, who was in the courtroom on Monday.

The judge in the case showed some leniency: in the penal settlement Titiev will be able to move around freely at some times of day and wear civilian clothes. Under the terms of his sentence he can spend two days a month at home.

“For nine months they were fabricating the criminal case, and for eight months they fabricated the verdict,” Titiev declared after hearing the result.

Titiev’s case has become emblematic of the crackdown on human rights activists and other independent voices in Chechnya under Ramzan Kadyrov. Initially given free rein by the Kremlin to quell an Islamic insurgency in the region, Kadyrov’s power has grown to a level more commonly associated with absolute dictatorships and monarchies. In a fit of bluster last year, he declared Chechnya would become “forbidden territory” for human rights activists after Titiev’s case. It is unclear whether he will enforce the fiat.

“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 in August.

Advocates for human rights and their sources of information are frequent targets of his ire. Titiev’s predecessor Natalya Estemirova was abducted and killed in Grozny in 2009. The case remains unsolved, but colleagues say they hold Kadyrov personally responsible for her death.

Orlov said Kadyrov wanted to push Memorial out of Chechnya. “We can no longer work how we used to in Chechnya – we had to close it because of this case – but that does not mean we will stop working in Chechnya,” he said. “But I won’t tell you the details of how we’re going to do that.”

The leniency in the verdict was a surprise, and family members credited the media attention to the case. Titiev’s immediate family had left the country over fears they could be targeted with reprisals. When the verdict was read, they cried and some laughed, happy that Titiev’s sentence was not as severe as they had feared.

Titiev declared the sentence unjust but pumped his fist in the air as he left the courtroom.