German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks to Russia's President Vladimir Putin at the start of the first working session of the G20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, July 7 2017. 

© 2017 REUTERS/Kay Nietfeld, Pool
(Berlin) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 18, 2018 in Sochi is a crucial opportunity to press for the release of a wrongfully detained Russian human rights defender and to raise other key human rights issues, Human Rights Watch said today.

The human rights defender, Oyub Titiev, director of the leading Russian human rights organization Memorial in Grozny, Chechnya, has been held since January 9.

“A phone call from President Putin to the Chechen authorities could ensure Oyub Titiev’s freedom,” said Wenzel Michalski, Germany director at Human Rights Watch. “Merkel should urge Putin to ensure that Titiev is released before the start of the World Cup.”

The FIFA World Cup starts in Russia on June 14. Grozny will host the Egyptian national team for the duration of the tournament.

Weeks before the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, several high-profile prisoners were pardoned, including the former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and members of the punk group Pussy Riot.

Chechnya police arrested Titiev on January 9, planted marijuana in his car, and pressed false drug possession charges against him. He has been in pretrial custody since his arrest. If convicted, Titiev faces a maximum 10-year prison sentence.

Titiev’s prosecution is politically motivated and aimed at shutting down Memorial in Chechnya, Human Rights Watch said. Since the 1990s, Memorial has documented torture, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and other serious human rights violations in Chechnya.

Ramzan Kadyrov, head of Russia’s Chechen Republic, presides over the security forces that carry out these abuses with the Kremlin’s tacit blessing, as Putin is Kadyrov’s patron. Kadyrov has repeatedly made public and graphic threats against human rights defenders, investigative journalists, and other critics.

Merkel has a strong record of raising human rights concerns with Putin, including on serious abuses in Chechnya, Human Rights Watch said. In a joint news conference with Putin in 2017, Merkel raised the issue of the brutal anti-gay purge in Chechnya, and said she urged Putin “to use his influence to protect these minority rights.” 

On May 10, Human Rights Watch raised Titiev’s case in a meeting with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in Moscow.

The current Russian government has been the country’s most repressive since the Soviet era, Human Rights Watch said. The government has forcibly registered human rights and other civic groups that engage in public advocacy as “foreign agents” if they accepted even the smallest amounts of foreign funding, prompting many to close and pushing others near bankruptcy.

In the past 18 months, police have arrested thousands of peaceful protesters and beaten many, including those who demonstrated on the eve of Putin’s May 7 inauguration. Authorities increasingly and unjustifiably restrict access to and censor information the government designates “extremist,” out of line with “traditional values,” or otherwise harmful to the public.

Five Jehovah’s Witnesses are in pretrial custody facing prison sentences for “extremism” for nothing more than their religious activity. In recent years, Russian authorities have unjustifiably prosecuted dozens of people for criminal offenses on the basis of social media posts, online videos, media articles, and interviews, and shut down or blocked access to hundreds of websites and web pages. Bloggers, people active on social media, journalists, and others face harassment, intimidation, spurious criminal charges, and, in some cases, physical attacks.

New laws regulating data storage unjustifiably restrict users’ access to information, and ensure that a wealth of data, including confidential user information and the content of communications, are available to authorities, often without any judicial oversight.

The new laws and other measures amount to a wholesale assault on privacy and free expression online, Human Rights Watch said.

In April, Russian authorities blocked the messenger app Telegram, along with millions of IP addresses – in an attempt to stop Telegram from using them. The move disrupted online services, including search engines, shopping, travel booking services, and the like. Authorities have repeatedly threatened to block Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter for failing to comply with requirements to store Russian citizens’ user data in Russia.

“Merkel’s principled voice has never been needed more than now,” Michalski said. “She can use that voice to help free Oyub Titiev, and to make clear that the new level of repression in Russia will never be accepted as ‘the new normal.’”