Today, as I sat in a tiny courtroom in Shali, a 40-minute drive from Chechnya’s capital, at a hearing in the show trial of human rights defender Oyub Titiev, another hearing was to start in Moscow. It was for two of Oyub’s colleagues from Memorial, a leading Russian rights group, on trial for peacefully supporting their jailed colleague.
On July 9, Oleg Orlov and Svetlana Gannushkina went to Manezhnaya Square, by the Kremlin’s walls, and raised “Freedom to Oyub Titiev” posters. Five minutes later, police arrested them for violating regulations on public gatherings, an administrative offense punishable by a fine of up to 20,000 rubles (about US$317).
Orlov and Gannushkina fully expected to be arrested. Their show of solidarity happened during the World Cup, and public protests were prohibited in Russia’s World Cup cities this summer. But they wanted to draw attention to the opening that day of Oyub’s trial. Until then, Oyub’s friends and colleagues had hoped for the case to be quietly dropped. The charge of marijuana possession, and the entire case against Oyub is patently bogus.
But once the trial started in Shali, all such hopes vanished. In Chechnya, judges obey the authorities, and the local strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov had publicly condemned Oyub. His colleagues’ protest in Moscow was an important act of solidarity. “It’s the only thing we can now do for Oyub,” they told me.
For a month now, I’ve been traveling to Chechnya almost weekly, talking to Oyub through the bars of the courtroom’s cage. I also show him photographs of colleagues discussing his case with leading European policy-makers, a theater in Moscow performing a play about him, rights activists posing in “#SaveOyub” t-shirts. When Oyub saw the photo of Orlov and Gannushkina at Manezhnaya, he smiled. Seeing friends and strangers fighting for his release helps him get through this parody of a trial. He faces a ten-year prison sentence.
Today, the court in Moscow postponed the decision on Orlov and Gannushkina, but they don’t doubt they’ll be fined
During Oyub’s hearing, when one of his lawyers and the prosecutor got into a shouting match, the judge asked them wearily, “Please behave – a man’s fate is at stake.” But it seems clear to everyone here that Chechnya’s leadership had already decided Oyub will be punished for his human rights work. Nevertheless, we refuse to give up – our presence and support are his lifeline.