On the morning of January 9th, Chechen authorities arrested Oyub Titiev, head of the Chechen branch of Memorial, Russia’s leading non-governmental organization that monitors human rights in Russia and other post-Soviet states. Authorities initially denied that Mr. Titiev was in custody, preventing his timely access to his lawyer, but later announced that they had found 180 grams of a marijuana-like substance in a bag in Titiev’s car and charged him with illegal possession of drugs. [If convicted,] Mr. Titiev could be imprisoned for up to 10 years.
Oyub Titiev took over as head of the Chechen branch of Memorial in 2009, after his predecessor, human rights activist Natalia Estemirova, was abducted from her home and murdered. According to her colleagues, she had been working on extremely sensitive cases of alleged human rights abuses in Chechnya.
Indeed, Chechen authorities under the head of the Chechen government, Ramzan Kadyrov, have long targeted the human rights watchdog organization Memorial, its employees, as well as others who speak out against alleged human rights abuses in Chechnya. The U.S. government recently imposed sanctions on Mr. Kadyrov for his involvement in extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture.
“Framing people for drug crimes has become an increasingly frequent tactic used by Chechnya’s authorities to punish and discredit their critics in the eyes of conservative Chechen society,” writes Human Rights Watch Russia Program Director Tanya Lokshina. “In recent years, Kadyrov has often publicly smeared and threatened rights activists, and some of those activists also suffered attacks and harassment by local security officials or pro-government thugs.”
Oyub Titiev’s arrest, said State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert in a written statement, “is the latest in a string of recent reports of [what appear to be] alarming human rights violations in Chechnya. We call on Chechen authorities to release Mr. Titiev immediately and allow independent civil society to operate free from harassment and intimidation.
“Given well-founded concerns about potential mistreatment of Mr. Titiev in custody, we urge Russian federal authorities to ensure that Mr. Titiev’s rights are protected in accordance with the Russian constitution and Russia’s human rights obligations.”