Today, the courtroom in Chechnya where Oyub Titiev is on trial on bogus drug possession charges in retaliation for his human rights work was packed to the brim. His friends and relatives attend every hearing, along with journalists, and human rights defenders from Moscow and St. Petersburg. Even European diplomats traveled to Chechnya to observe it.
But shortly after the hearing started the prosecutor requested to close the trial to the public, supposedly to protect the policemen summoned for questioning. He argued that public exposure of their names, titles, and faces jeopardized their security– a peculiar stance, since over the past two months dozens of police officers have already testified in court with no such concerns raised and no adverse consequences to our knowledge.
Nevertheless, the judge granted the request.
Four weeks ago, the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, pledged to bar human rights defenders and independent press from what he called “his territory.”
“Let them walk around [here for now], let them come to [Titiev’s court hearings],” he said. “But once the trial is finished – no [more]… I’m officially telling human rights defenders: once the court delivers its ruling… Chechnya will be a forbidden territory for them, like for terrorists, extremists, and others because they’re provocateurs themselves…”
Last month, Human Rights Watch and two other groups published an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Chechnya being one of Russia’s regions and therefore its responsibility, they stressed that Kadyrov’s remarks showed an intent to carry out unlawful actions, since banning human rights defenders and journalists is unlawful under Russian and international law. Kadyrov might think he can get away with thumbing his nose to international law, but it might be harder for him to dismiss Russian law.
After the letter gained media attention, Chechnya’s information minister said Kadyrov had been misunderstood, that human rights defenders were welcome in Chechnya, and the authorities were ready to answer their questions. Today’s move to close Titiev’s hearings to the public, even if temporarily, belies the minister’s remarks and undermines Titiev’s right to a fair and public hearing. International law allows for closed trials under special circumstances, but it’s not evident such circumstances were met in the case today.
Tomorrow, we will go the courthouse again for the hearing to support Titiev; standing outside if forced to show the authorities we won’t be discouraged by closed doors, and that we’ll continue to demand justice for one of Russia’s great human rights defenders.