As It Happens

Drug charges meant to discredit Chechen activist: human rights activist

A prominent human rights activist has been sentenced to four years in prison after a trial that many say is a sham. Human Rights Watch's Rachel Denber says the proceedings against Oyub Titiev were a "show trial" designed to intimidate.

Proceedings against Titiyev a 'show trial' designed to intimidate, says Human Rights Watch's Rachel Denber

Oyub Titiev, the head of a Chechnya branch of the prominent human rights group Memorial, stands behind bars in court before a hearing in Shali, Russia on March 18, 2019. (Musa Sadulayev/Associated Press)

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A prominent human rights activist in the Russia province of Chechnya has been sentenced to four years in prison on drug charges that are widely seen as an attempt by authorities to silence a critical voice.

The court in the Chechen town of Shali found Oyub Titiev guilty of drug possession and sent him to a prison colony, which means he will be able to travel home to see his family two days a week. Titiev has denied the charges, and his lawyers said they would appeal the verdict.

Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch has called the proceedings a show trial.

The reading out of the full verdict took more than eight hours, during which time everyone in the courtroom, including the defendant, had to stand. "This is a marathon reading of the verdict... Not all drug trials involve a verdict that reads for nine hours," Denber told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"I think one of the reasons why she did it this way was because they were trying to make a statement: like 'OK Mr. Titiev, you wanted to play by the rules. We'll play by the rules and we're going to give you a pound of procedure. It would be laughable if it weren't for the fate of a man at stake, [and] totally blatantly fabricated evidence."

Titiev has been in custody since his arrest in January 2018 in what has been widely perceived as a vendetta against a rare critic of the Chechen government.

As the head of the Chechen office of prominent rights group Memorial, he played a major role in exposing extrajudicial killings, kidnappings and torture perpetrated by security forces in Chechnya.

Zharadat Titiyeva, left, Khava Zakriyeva, centre, and Yakub Titiev look through the family pictures that feature their sibling, jailed activist Oyub Titiev, at their family home in Kurchaloy, Chechnya on March 17. (Musa Sadulayev/Associated Press)

Chechnya's regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who previously dismissed rights activists as liars and traitors, publicly called the 61-year-old Titiev a "junkie."

The drug charges against Titiev were designed to humiliate him in the eyes of his community, says Dunbar. "In Chechen society ... your personal honor is the central thing in your life," she explained.

As an example, she said, the prosecution called up a witness who alleges he once saw Titiev smoking marijuana. Denber characterized that accusation as "completely ridiculous."

"I think one of the reasons why they trotted him out was because they wanted to strip him of his honour in the eyes of his countrymen," she said.

Titiev was arrested after a traffic patrol stopped his car and found what they said a suspicious bag in his car. The prosecutors later said it was marijuana.

Russian celebrity TV host Ksenia Sobchak holds a poster reads 'Free for jailing Oyub Titiev!' as she attends a protest during her visit to Grozny, Russia on Jan. 28, 2018. (Musa Sadulayev/Associated Press)

Tests didn't find any drugs in Titiev's blood and two dozen neighbours gave testimony in court to say that he wasn't known for taking drugs — a bold act in Chechnya, where people who come out even with mild criticism of authorities end up being harassed and intimidated.

Titiev's wife and three children fled Russia after he was jailed. His eldest daughter still lives in Chechnya.

His case closely resembles criminal prosecution of a politician and a journalist in 2014 and 2016, respectively. Both men have been a thorn in the side of the Chechen government, and both men were charged with drug possession, which they say were planted on them.

Titiev's trial could become a watershed moment for Chechnya where the crackdown on rights activists has been unrelenting.

Last year, Kadyrov pledged unhindered access to hearings in the Titiev case, but vowed to make Chechnya after the end of the trial a "no-go zone" for human rights activists whom he described as being no better than "terrorists and extremists."

Titiev took the lead of Memorial in Chechnya in 2010 after his boss Natalya Estemirova, a single mother of a teenage girl, was kidnapped and brutally murdered. Her death remains unsolved.

"Since his arrest, Memorial has had to suspend their work in Chechnya to protect the security of its staff," Denber said. "And Memorial was the last organization that was openly working on the the hardest issues. But even if people can't get into Chechnya to do human rights work, news about abuses always gets out.

"Human rights reporting goes on, [and] people will always want to tell the truth about what happens to them."

Written by Alison Broverman with files from Associated Press. Interview with Rachel Denber produced by Kate Swoger.