Russian activist Oyub Titiev: One year behind bars in Chechnya

Oyub Titiev of the Russian human rights organization Memorial was arrested in January 2018 on drug charges. Still imprisoned one year later, his colleagues say the allegations are entirely fabricated.

Oyub Titiev became head of Memorial's Grozny office in 2009, succeeding Natalia Estemirova, who was kidnapped and murdered. As a leading human rights activist, Titiev urged that kidnappings, acts of torture and killings reportedly perpetrated by Chechen security agencies be thoroughly investigated. He also called for inquiries into war crimes perpetrated during both Chechen wars. Titiev was also engaged in humanitarian work, including rebuilding schools in the mountainous regions of Chechnya.

Read more: The Titiev trial — a Chechen circus

Titiev's lawyers say he was kidnapped by policemen from the Chechen village of Kurchaloy on the morning of January 9, 2018. They say he was then taken to the police station, though no report of his arrest was produced. The authorities reportedly tried forcing Titiev to confess he had been transporting drugs. When Titiev refused, his lawyers say he was taken back to a country road and it was there where an arrest by traffic police, who claim to have found marijuana under the driver's seat of his car, was staged.

Memorial offices searched and burned

On January 17, 2018, unknown culprits burned down Memorial's office in the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia. Two day later, the organization's Grozny office was searched and two marijuana cigarettes were allegedly found. Memorial activists were threatened and urged to shut the Grozny office. Most of them then fled Chechnya.

Not long after Titiev's arrest, Memorial's office in Ingushetia burned down

Titiev's lawyers believe that the accusations against their client are fabricated. Titiev, who is a devout Muslim and was once an athlete, is known to abstain from drugs and alcohol. Lawyer Ilya Novikov says there are many inconsistencies in the authorities' account of the events. They say, for instance, that all video cameras in the police station and in the police cars were broken. No footage of Titiev's initial arrest and the ensuing discovery of drugs is therefore available. None of the cameras in the pharmacies, banks and shops in the village of Kurchaloy apparently were operational, either, so no footage of the police car's journey is available. Titiev's car, which was parked in the lot of the police station, was allegedly broken into and the dash cam and GPS tracker were stolen. Novikov says these are just some of the many inconsistencies in the police account.

Police claim to not remember

During the trial, police officers denied the existence of the special unit which initially arrested Titiev, even though pictures of the unit's uniforms surfaced on social media. In court, the officers all claimed to have little recollection of the day of January 9, 2018 — none of them could recall the color of their uniforms, the kinds of cars they drove or what code names they had used. Titiev's legal team also discovered pictures of the supposed witnesses, who said they were present when Titiev was allegedly caught with drugs, wearing police uniforms. One of the witnesses said the pictures were a joke, claiming his girlfriend had asked him to dress up as a police officer for fun.

Chechen leader Kadyrov has said human rights activists are not welcome

"There are dozens of witnesses who recite rehearsed lies, which you can tell because they feel awkward doing it. Or they invent their own lies," said the chairman of Memorial, Alexander Cherkasov. "They make something up to cover up the truth."

Chechnya: A no-go zone for human rights activists?

During a meeting with Chechnya's Interior Ministry leadership in August 2018, the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, said that people fighting for human rights were not welcome. "I cannot travel to Europe and the West," said Kadyrov, who is on European Union and United States sanctions lists, "so I hereby declare that human rights activists have no permission to enter this territory." Kadyrov said he had introduced "sanctions" against human rights activist, adding that they would be used against Titiev after his trial. Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta quoted Kadyrov as saying: "I want to officially announce this to human rights activists: After this trial is over, Chechnya will be off limits to them, just as it is to terrorists and extremists."    

Titiev's plight has garnered worldwide attention. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has begun investigating cases that Titiev previously worked on, and Russia has been urged to critically examine the conduct of the Chechen authorities or risk an international investigation. In October, the European Parliament awarded the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize to Titiev. And in December, Titiev was also awarded the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights.