Yesterday I went to Chechnya for the first time since the terrible war in 1999. It was my first time in Grozny, the capital, which has long been rebuilt and whose skyline now features modern high rises.
Yesterday was also the 70th day that Oyub Titiev has spent in jail. Titiev is the Grozny director of Memorial, the Russian human rights group that seeks justice for civilian victims of the Chechnya wars. It’s the last remaining human rights group that works openly in Chechnya, after Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, turned this republic of Russia into an enclave of fear, where even the mildest criticism of him or his government’s policies carries risk of public humiliation, enforced disappearance, or worse.
I was in Grozny to attend a hearing in which Titiev appealed the extension of his pretrial custody. Police arrested Titiev on January 9 on ludicrous marijuana possession charges. Titiev insists police planted the drugs. It’s not the first time Chechen authorities have used bogus drug charges to lock up their critics.
The judge rejected the defense’s motion to allow Titiev to sit with his lawyers instead of in the defendants’ “cage” because, well, that’s the norm, he said. The defense made numerous arguments as to why Titiev should be released prior to trial, chiefly the lack of any evidence that he would obstruct justice, abscond, or threaten public security
No one was surprised when the judge ruled against Titiev. But it was still a dramatic moment and a massive injustice. It’s also hard to swallow that while Titiev unjustly sits behind bars in Grozny, the Egyptian national football team is slated to treat it as their home for Russia’s 2018 FIFA World Cup. FIFA, the global footballing body, recently announced a robust new human rights framework, including a focus on human rights defenders, that applies to all its operations. One way to put this policy into practice, and address the unjust and unseemly juxtaposition of Titiev in jail and FIFA enjoying the embrace of Kadyrov, would be for them speak up for Titiev at the highest level and seek his release.
As we left Grozny, a colleague pointed out where Natalia Estemirova, one of Chechnya’s top human rights activists, had lived until her murder in 2009. Natalia had encouraged Titiev to join Memorial, and he took over after her killing. I couldn’t help feeling her presence all day.