Today, my late friend’s daughter published a video calling on the public to petition Russia’s President Putin to free Oyub Titiev, the Chechnya director for Russia’s leading human rights organization, Memorial. Titiev has been jailed since January, pending trial on trumped-up drug possession charges.
My late friend, Natasha Estemirova, was Chechnya’s most prominent rights defender. In summer 2009, a group of security officials kidnapped her in Grozny and killed her. I was in Chechnya for her funeral. The pain of seeing my best friend’s body, riddled with bullets, was eclipsed only by the horror of looking into the eyes of Lana, her 15-year-old orphaned daughter.
Now Lana, 24, is trying to help save the man who stepped in to lead Memorial’s work in Chechnya after Natasha’s murder. “We could not save my mother. But we can save Oyub and we can save Memorial. All it takes is for Russia’s president to pick up the phone and tell the authorities in Chechnya to get their hands off Oyub and Memorial,” she says.
I was in Grozny earlier this month for a court hearing on whether Oyub’s pretrial custody would be extended, talking to him through the bars of his defendant’s cage. It seemed obvious that authorities were punishing Oyub for his human rights work and trying to force Memorial, the last human rights organizations with presence on the ground, out of Chechnya.
Chechnya has no independent judiciary. Rather, Governor Ramzan Kadyrov has been eradicating all forms of dissent, with the Kremlin’s blessing. Predictably, the judge extended Oyub’s custody for another month. Before they led him away, Oyub smiled at me. “Everything’s going to be all right,” he said. Even facing a ten-year prison sentence, he was trying to ease the distress of his friends and colleagues.
Lana has a different tact. “Russia will be hosting the World Cup this summer… It will open on June 14. It will close on July 15 – that’s the ninth anniversary of my mom’s murder. Will this happen while Oyub is behind bars?” She hopes not. Especially as Grozny is slated as a home base for Egypt’s national team during the tournament. She hopes that the world will stand up for Oyub and make it clear to Putin – Kadyrov’s patron – that we won’t watch silently as Russia’s leading human rights organization and its Chechnya director are destroyed.