Silence in the courtroom: how one of Chechnya’s last human rights defenders was convicted on drug charges

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Posted on: April 11, 2019

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Silence in the courtroom: how one of Chechnya’s last human rights defenders was convicted on drug charges 8 April 2019 Этот пост доступен на языках: Русский Oyub Titiyev in court (Stanislav Kryuchkov /Open Democracy Russia) On 18 March, Chechen human rights defender Oyub Titiyev was sentenced to four years in prison on trumped-up drug charges. He is only the latest victim in Russia’s repres­sions against civil society in the North Caucasus. ‘Let justice reign!’ reads the banner hanging over the compound of the court house in Shali, Chechnya. The slogan is accom­pa­nied by a strict-looking Akhmat Kadyrov, the North Caucasus republic’s former leader. Next to the cour­t­house, there’s a new business centre (‘Shali-City’) and a mosque named in honour of Akhmat Kadyrov’s son, Ramzan. A police jeep leaves the compound. Oyub Titiyev, the director of the Grozny branch of the Memorial human rights asso­ci­a­tion, has just been placed in it after receiving a four year prison sentence on narcotics charges. This sentence was less than what the pros­e­cu­tors requested — four years of strict regime prison plus a 100,000 rouble (£1,160) fine. Oyub’s older brother Yakub was ready for this sentence. Last summer he’d received hints that if Oyub apol­o­gised to the right people, then the Memorial director could have been ‘forgiven’ — in the form of a lighter sentence and a quiet life for his family. But Titiyev’s relatives did not even consider it as an option. ‘He’s got nothing to be sorry for, let the guilty ones apologise’, Yakub says. Oyub Titiyev’s sisters and brother: Dzharadat, Khava, and Yakub (Yeka­te­ri­na Neroznikova/Open Democracy Russia) The war on drugs Given who was being convicted and for what, you could call Oyub Titiyev’s four-year sentence ‘light’. But Titiyev has a different opinion. ‘Oyub sees the situation clearly: for him, any kind of guilty verdict can’t be con­sid­ered light. He has nothing to do with the charges against him’, says Marina Dubrovina, his lawyer. According to Dubrovina, the fact that the Shali court opted for a light sentence could mean that Titiyev’s innocence had become ‘too obvious’. ‘The decision to sentence him to a penal set­tle­ment instead of a strict regime prison means we can request parole quite soon, in May.’ But while Titiyev is in the hands of law enforce­ment, ‘it’s too early to start clapping’, the lawyer adds. Too often, Dubrovina has seen sit­u­a­tions where a rel­a­tive­ly light sentence is followed by a second criminal pros­e­cu­tion. ‘This is what happened to Yevgeny Vitishko and Suren Gazaryan [Russian ecol­o­gists from Krasnodar], and it was the same situation with Mikhail Savva [a Krasnodar political activist who left Russia in 2015].’ For people who know Titiyev, the charge that the 61-year-old was found in pos­ses­sion of 200 grammes of marijuana looks absurd. A keen athlete and observant Muslim, Oyub Titiyev has never smoked nor drank in his life. But in ‘Chechen realities’, a narcotics charge was all too pre­dictable. Oyub Titiyev’s siblings show their family photo albums (Yeka­te­ri­na Neroznikova/Open Democracy Russia) After Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the republic, informed law enforce­ment that ‘drug addiction and terrorism are evils of the same force’ at a special session in 2016, demanding that ‘ those people who break the law in the Chechen Republic should be shot to hell ’, the North Caucasus republic witnessed an active anti-drug campaign. In August 2017, a new unit was created to lead the fight against drugs in Chechnya, and people were rounded up in groups on drug pos­ses­sion charges. These trials were often held according to ‘special pro­ce­dures’, a legal provision whereby defen­dants admit their guilt in advance, and courts do not examine the evidence against them. By the end of 2017, Chechnya was a ‘leading region’ in terms of the number of drug-related offences. According to Marina Dubrovina, charges on par­tic­i­pa­tion in an illegal armed group, weapon pos­ses­sion, and drg pos­ses­sion are the most fre­quent­ly used in the republic. Indeed, drug pos­ses­sion charges are often used against indi­vid­u­als the Chechen author­i­ties don’t like. In 2014, Ruslan Kutayev, head of the Assembly of the Peoples of the Caucasus, was arrested after police officers ‘found’ enough heroin for a pos­ses­sion in a sig­nif­i­cant amount charge. Kutayev had pre­vi­ous­ly crit­i­cised the author­i­ties for ignoring an important date for Chechens — 23 February, the date used to mark the start of Soviet depor­ta­tion oper­a­tions in 1944 . In 2016, jour­nal­ist Zhalavdi Geriyev was detained on narcotics charges — he was ‘found’ with a bag of marijuana slightly smaller than that ‘found’ on Titiyev. Geriyev is due to be released from prison soon — his sentence ends on 1 May. Kutayev was released at the end of 2017, and he came to support Titiyev at the sen­tenc­ing hearing. ‘You’ll spend a little time there and then you’ll be home’, Kutayev said to Titiyev through the bars. The entrance to Ramzan Kadyrov’s home village Kurchaloy with the picture of his father Akhmat-Khadzhi (Yeka­te­ri­na Neroznikova/Open Democracy Russia) ‘Oyub’s handwriting’ The Memorial human rights asso­ci­a­tion began working in Chechnya in 1994. In 2006, it had four active offices in the republic — by 2014, it had only one left, in Grozny. It was on the balcony of this office on 16 January that Chechen police found two ‘sus­pi­cious cig­a­rettes’ and several notes scribbled on paper. Pre­dictably, these cig­a­rettes were later found to contain marijuana. The notes were in Oyub’s hand­writ­ing. ‘There were names and telephone numbers written on these papers. They were used as filters [for the cig­a­rettes]. They removed the normal filters and used these notes instead’, says lawyer Pyotr Zaikin. ‘They analysed the hand­writ­ing and “found” that it was Oyub’s.’ Titiyev’s legal counsel disputed that these ‘cig­a­rettes’ belonged to their client. Zaikin was surprised that the police didn’t find pages from Titiyev’s passport found instead, given the level of prepa­ra­tion that went into the ‘evidence’ against him. Zaikin is convinced that this evidence appeared in the case in order to further discredit Titiyev. Oyub Titiyev in court with his lawyers on the right: Pyotr Zaikin and Marina Dubrovina (Yeka­te­ri­na Neroznikova/Open Democracy Russia) Clear signals Titiyev’s con­vic­tion is a signal both to the Chechen rights defender and his col­leagues, Oleg Orlov, who runs Memorial’s North Caucasus programme, says. ‘This is a signal from the Chechen author­i­ties that they will suppress rights defenders, that there is no place for them here. It’s a clear, obvious signal, it’s been given over the past few years. Just remember the attack on the office of the Committee Against Torture.’ For Orlov, there’s a signal to Russian society as a whole, too. ‘It’s not the Chechen author­i­ties giving this signal — a civic campaign in support of a political prisoner in Russia isn’t without meaning, even in the total­i­tar­i­an con­di­tions in Chechnya.’ It’s hard to say what con­di­tions led to a sentence lighter than that requested by the Chechen pros­e­cu­tors. But it’s clear that the Chechen lead­er­ship is behind this sentence, not the Shali judge, says Orlov. ‘Perhaps it was an order from the Kremlin, who came to the con­clu­sion that it was better to lighten the sentence. Otherwise there would be too much outcry over the case. But we clearly under­stand that this was a forced move for them. They would never do this by them­selves — they would have thrown the book at Oyub.’ ‘They basically said to Oyub: you can appeal this sentence, and then it won’t be clear what the outcome will be. There will be the risk that you could get a stricter sentence. But if you don’t appeal it, then there’s a chance to get parole.’ Indeed, Titiyev has decided not to appeal against the Shali court ruling, though he empha­sis­es that he hadn’t changed his position. ‘I’ve never admitted my guilt, I don’t admit it now, and I won’t admit it in the future, not under any cir­cum­stances’, said Titiyev on 1 April. A poster hanging over the Shali court with Ramzan Kadyrov’s father Akhmat-Khadzhi saying ‘Let justice reign’ (Yeka­te­ri­na Neroznikova/Open Democracy Russia) Strange democracy 18 March: Oyub stands behind bars in the small Shali cour­t­house. He’s wearing a dark blue suit — it was made to order, a present from his family. He’s wearing a dark blue tyu­betey­ka hat, too. He frowns and put his glasses on. As he reads out his last address to the court, he keeps his back straight — Titiyev has great posture for his age. ‘I, Titiyev Oyub Salmanovich, wound up behind bars by God’s will on 9 January 2018. I take this challenge with gratitude… I’ve lived in Kurchaloy since childhood. Now I’m 61. There’s been many changes in this time, the author­i­ties have changed, socialism is now in the past, and democracy has replaced it. We have a strange democracy in this country — in demo­c­ra­t­ic countries people don’t get impris­oned for clicks on the internet. But par­lia­ment really tries: every day it stamps out laws that limit freedom.’ Oyub Titiyev in court (Stanislav Kryuchkov /Open Democracy Russia) Oyub was always sure that he would be convicted, he never had any illusions on this account. ‘There aren’t any not guilty verdicts in this country. This testifies to the pros­e­cu­tors' complete control of the country’s judiciary.’ ‘Those who fab­ri­cat­ed this case think that they have a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion — the orders from above. But there wasn’t any order. Perhaps, there was a desire, an indi­ca­tion, but everyone rushed to carry it out in antic­i­pa­tion of the dividends. Fifteen or 20 years ago no one would have believed that this kind of trial would be possible in our republic. I’m afraid to imagine what we’ll have in another 20 years. I think I won’t live to see it.’ There’s silence in the courtroom. Oyub has never spoken for this long — nearly 40 minutes — and he won’t get the chance to do so again. In a week, he’ll receive his sentence, after which he’ll say a few words to the jour­nal­ists present and then be removed from the cour­t­house. ‘God told us to fight against injustice. This is why we’ll fight to the end.’ This article was produced in part­ner­ship with Open Democracy Russia. 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