When 4-years jail for Chechen human rights activists is a relief Said Tsarnaev/RIA Novosti, March 2018

When 4-years jail for Chechen human rights activists is a relief

Oyub Titiev, Director of the Regional Branch of the Human Rights Centre “Memorial” in Grozny, Chechen Republic in Russia, accused in a falsified case of possession of large amount of marijuana, sentenced to four years in a penal colony settlement. His colleagues and lawyers consider the sentence as a successful result of the wide international public campaign in support of Oyub, a well-known human rights activist, who documented cases of secret detentions of people in Chechnya.

Oyub Titiev has been working in the Grozny office of Memorial since 2001. Since 2009, shortly after the murder of human rights defender and Memorial staff member Natalia Estemirova, he became a head of the local office, while many of his colleagues had to leave the country fearing for their lives, and Memorial had to suspend its work in Chechnya for five months. Oyub has been documenting cases of secret and illegal detentions of Chechens by the security forces and frequently threatened in connection with his work. According to the Russian regional online news agency Kavkaz-Uzel, for the last few months before his arrest, Oyub Titiev was working on the case of 27 Chechens disappeared and shot dead by the police on the night of 26 January 2017.

On 9 January 2018, Oyub was stopped by the road police, which found 180 grammes of marijuana in his car and immediately arrested him on charges of illegal possession of drugs. Since then and until a final court hearing he had been held in pre-trial detention. He denied the accusation and suggested that marijuana was planted in his car. Shortly after Oyub Titiev’s arrest, his family was subjected to pressure and had to leave Chechnya.

On 25 December 2017, shortly before Titiev’s arrest, Speaker of the Chechen Parliament Magomed Daudov issued a statement in the Chechen news agency Grozny Inform blamed “pseudo-human rights defenders” in being a reason for blocking Instagram and Facebook accounts of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Head of Chechnya, earlier in November. He also named “various “committees” [reference to Nizhnii Novgorod Committee Against Torture], “centres” [reference to Memorial Human Rights Centre] and journalists of the most deceitful media [reference to Novaya Gazeta] enemies of the people. According to Amnesty International such statements of high level authorities are often perceived as orders in Chechnya.

Although the specific reason for Oyub’s arrest was unclear, his colleagues believed that his detention was an attempt by the authorities to stop him from doing his human rights work and that the accusation was falsified. Human rights organizations in Russia and internationally, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Front Line Defenders, Committee against torture, etc. supported Oyub asking for transferring a trial to a federal level, which has more chances to be transparent and fair compared to the local district court in Chechnya. The European Parliament has issued a resolution on Titiev’s case. Russian ombudsman Tatiana Moskalkova and the head of the Presidential council for human rights Mikhail Fedotov, and over 60 Russian cultural influencers have also supported the demand of fair trial on the federal level. Public campaign #FreeOyub was launched.

BlueLink has also taken part in an international #FreeOyub/#FreeMemorial campaign. In May 2018 during the General Assembly of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum taken place in Sofia, activists of over 10 EU members states and Russia held a flash mob in front of Russia’s embassy in Sofia. They demanded the fair trial and the release of Oyub Titiev.

Official authorities in the face of Ramzan Kadyrov also had commented the case few times during the investigation year. In May 2018 in his Telegram channel Kadyrov claimed that had never heard about Titiev before his arrest, that Titiev had never defended anyone, never asked authorities about human rights cases, and never told anyone that he is cooperating with human rights organisation. In October 2018 Kadyrov commented the trial saying the he “forgot about it long time ago” and “if he [Titiev] is guilty, he should be imprisoned, if not – released.”

At the end demands of the human rights defenders were not taken into account and the trial continued in Chechnya. On the two days of the final hearings, 11 and 18 March 2019,many Russian and international human rights activists, journalists and diplomats arrived as observers to the court. According to Novaya Gazeta, the guilty verdict was foreseeable, but the punishment occurred to be unexpected and humanistic. The judge changed the qualification of the crime from heavy to mild and the way of serving the 4-years sentence from a regular prison to a penal colony settlement. Change in the qualification allow Titiev to ask for an early release already after one month.

‘The presence of international observers at the trial of Oyub Titiev was a powerful assertion of international solidarity with Oyub and an important statement of the absolute requirement for observance of international standards of fair trial,’ said Simon Cosgrove, Head of the NGO “Rights in Russia” (Ilminster, UK), who went on a court hearing mission on 11 March with the mandate of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum.

Two weeks after the verdict Memorial announced that Oyub will not appeal against the judgment. It will give him an opportunity to ask for an early release on parole in May 2019. He stated: “I will return to human rights activities as soon as possible. I see the sense of my life in it.”