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Russia: Rights Defender Sentenced to Four-Year Prison Term

Political Prosecution of Memorial’s Oyub Titiev Draws to an End

Update: On May 31, a court in Chechnya will rule on the parole request by Oyub Titiev, who is currently serving his four-year sentence in a penal settlement in Argun. Titiev has already served one-third of his sentence, taking into account the time he had spent in custody before trial, which makes him eligible for parole. He filed the parole request on May 15.  “We are looking forward to seeing Oyub Titiev released from the courtroom next week,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “He should never have had to spend a single day in jail. The officials who fabricated the case against him should be held to account.”

Update: After a reading of the verdict that took 9 hours, the judge in the Shali District Court convicted Oyub Titiev and sentenced him to 4 years in penal colony settlement. His lawyers have said they will appeal. “The guilty verdict against Oyub Titiev is gross injustice to him, a disgrace to Russian criminal justice system, and risks further emboldening Ramzan Kadyrov, the governor of Chechnya, to silence reporting on human rights abuses in Chechnya,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.“Titiev should be freed immediately.”

(Moscow) – A Chechen court is scheduled to issue the verdict against Oyub Titiev, a human rights defender with the Russian group Memorial, on March 18, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today. The bogus drug possession case against Titiev, based on fabricated evidence, is politically motivated and aims to stifle reporting on human rights abuses in Chechnya.

Oyub Titiev at the Shali court in Chechnya, February 12, 2019. © 2019 Tanya Lokshina/Human Rights Watch

Titiev, 61, has been in custody since his arrest on January 9, 2018. In the months before his arrest, he was gathering information about enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and secret detention by security forces in Chechnya. The prosecution has asked for a four-year prison sentence. The government should drop the case against Titiev, vacate any verdict, and allow Memorial and other independent groups to carry out their human rights work in the republic.

“That this groundless case has gone so far is a colossal injustice to Titiev and an embarrassment to Russia’s criminal justice system,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Oyub Titiev should never have had to spend a minute in custody. But even at this late stage, the authorities should immediately free him and correct the injustice.”

Titiev began working for Memorial in 2001. He has led Memorial’s work in Chechnya since 2009, after the kidnapping and murder of his colleague Natalia Estemirova. Since then, under the leadership of Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s governor, local authorities, and their proxies have hounded, detained, beaten and vilified human rights defenders and even torched their offices. Titiev’s prosecution is aimed at punishing him for his human rights work and forcing Memorial completely out of Chechnya, Human Rights Watch said.

From the moment of Titiev’s arrest, when police planted a bag of marijuana in his car, through the trial, Chechen authorities have violated Titiev’s rights to liberty, security, and due process. On the day of his arrest, police initially told Titiev’s lawyer that he was not in their custody, denying him access for seven hours.

After arresting him and taking him to the station, police took Titiev and his car back to the spot on the road where they had stopped him earlier, and faked a replay of the discovery of marijuana in front of people the police summoned as “witnesses,” and collected and packaged the questionable “evidence.” The prosecution also produced a dubious witness who claimed to have seen Titiev smoking a joint in Grozny in November 2017, though marijuana use in public in Chechnya is unheard of. 

In court, the presiding judge refused all defense motions to exclude the prosecution’s evidence, despite the compelling circumstances that indicate it was fabricated and unreliable, Human Rights Watch said.

Kadyrov publicly called Titiev a drug addict and a traitor for working for an “enemy” organization.

Memorial was the last human rights organization that still maintained a presence in Chechnya and exposed enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and other egregious abuses. Shortly after Titiev’s arrest, one of Memorial’s offices, about an hour from Grozny, was torched, as was the car of one of Memorial’s drivers in another location. Chechen police also raided Memorial’s office in Chechnya and harassed the landlady for renting to a “subversive” organization.

Following Titiev’s arrest, Memorial had to suspend its work in Chechnya and evacuate all local staff for security reasons.

“Once Kadyrov set his sights on Titiev, his jailing is yet another demonstration of the lack of respect for rule of law and human rights in Chechnya, and Moscow’s tolerance of that situation,” Denber said. “Titiev should be freed immediately and action taken in Moscow to restore respect for human rights in Chechnya.”

For details about the arrest, please see below.

Bogus Arrest, Bogus Evidence

On the morning of January 9, 2018, police arrested Titiev near Kurchaloi, a town 30 miles from Grozny, the Chechen capital, as he was driving to work. They claimed they found a bag with 180 grams of marijuana in his car and charged him with drug possession under article 228.2 of the criminal code.

When police in camouflage uniforms initially stopped Titiev in his car at around 9 a.m., one officer distracted him while the other planted the bag of marijuana in his car. Once at the police station, police threatened him to try to get a false confession to drug possession charges.

After Titiev refused and pointed out that police had no witnesses to the alleged drug confiscation, the police drove him and his car back to area where they had stopped him earlier. The police later claimed that this was when they first pulled him over because his high beam headlights were on and, through the rolled-down window, they noticed something “suspicious” under a rubber mat under the front seat. Back at the site the second time that morning, the police called “witnesses,” who promptly arrived and observed as police pulled out the bag of marijuana.

Surveillance videos for the more than a dozen security cameras at and near the police station would have shown that Titiev had been taken to the station twice, but in written reply to defense inquiries, investigators said all were out of order between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. on January 9. Police also denied taking Titiev’s three phones and tablet device that might have tracked his movements, and that remain missing

The police testified that they do not have the kinds of cars Titiev said they were driving when they first stopped him. But the chief of the district police stated in a police document that in fact they do.

The authorities claimed that swabs from Titiev’s palm showed traces of marijuana. On the day of Titiev’s arrest, before his lawyer had access to him, police swabbed Titiev’s palm, then led him out of the room. When they brought him back moments later, the envelope with the sample was sealed shut. The forensic examiner’s written description of the bag of marijuana it received for analysis featured two bags, one inside the other, and Titiev’s hair taped to one of the bags. The prosecution claimed the hair as evidence the bag was Titiev’s. The investigation’s written description of the bag seized by police on January 9 states that the marijuana was in a bag inside a bag, inside a third bag, and does not mention tape or hair.

A prosecution witness testified that on the day of Titiev’s arrest, he happened to see, on the smartphone of a stranger sitting next to him in a taxi van, an article about Titiev’s arrest. He said he recognized Titiev from the photo as a person he had seen smoking marijuana on a Grozny street in November 2017.

The witness claimed that an hour later he coincidentally ran into a police investigator in Grozny and told him about Titiev. That evening, the investigator also allegedly happened to run into a police detective from Kurchaloi and told him about the man. The witness has two prior drug convictions but served no prison time, unheard of in Chechnya. The witness was unable to identify Titiev in a police line-up, but the investigator subsequently said this was an error in the paperwork.

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