FIFA has made a surprising choice in authorizing a World Cup 2018 training camp in Chechnya, recent news reports reveal. Egypt’s national football team, a World Cup finalist, selected Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, for its base during the tournament out of dozens of options.
Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, exerts a ruthless grip on the region where extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances are common and there is near-total repression of critics, journalists, and LGBT people. Kadyrov rules in this manner with the Kremlin’s tacit support.
Kadyrov seeks and revels in the spotlight. He had huge followings on Instagram, until the company disabled his account in December 2017, and on other social media platforms. A well-known football fan, it’s not hard to foresee him showing off the republic as a World Cup host, taking photos with the Egyptian team, and promoting himself through FIFA, world soccer’s governing body.
In 2017, FIFA announced a new Human Rights Policy, applicable across its global operations. It has also acknowledged that there are human rights concerns in Chechnya. After Human Rights Watch and other organizations brought the violent anti-gay purge in Chechnya and harassment of journalists to its attention, FIFA stated the “incidents … are in sharp contradiction to the values of FIFA as an organization and we firmly condemn them.”
In January, Chechen authorities arrested Oyub Titiev, the Chechnya director at Memorial, a leading human rights organization in Russia. Police planted marijuana in Titiev’s car and pressed false drug possession charges against him. He remains in custody pending trial and faces a maximum ten-year prison sentence. Chechen authorities have used similar tactics to silence other local activists and journalists. Titiev’s arrest was just one step in a broader campaign to try to force Memorial out of Chechnya and close down the very possibility of doing human rights work there.
Chechnya is now part of the 2018 World Cup operations. FIFA needs to reconcile its human rights policy with the serious violations going on there. One way to demonstrate the policy is more than words on paper would be to intervene with the Russian authorities on Titiev’s case. Human rights defenders and journalists need a safe atmosphere before World Cup events begin. Doing nothing will only spoil the celebration that World Cup athletes and fans hope the event can be.