The head of the Chechnya branch of the Human Rights Center “Memorial,” Oyub Titiyev, disappeared on Tuesday at 10:30 in the morning while driving from his home in the Kurchaloi region to the republic’s capital of Grozny.
Over the last few months employees of Memorial, Russia’s most famous human rights group, had received multiple threats from Chechen authorities, and Titiyev had shared concerns with his colleagues and friends. He realized he ran the risk he’d get abducted one day. He’d seen the same thing happen to dozens of people he had defended over the course of 17 years with Memorial.
Worried about Titiyev’s safety, his friend traveled to Kurchaloi and spotted a few policemen by Titiyev’s car, parked on the side of the road. Titiyev’s friend immediately reported to Memorial, but for several hours the Kurchaloi district police denied they were holding Titiyev.
Since he was the successor of the assassinated human rights defender Natalia Estemirova, the former head of Memorial in Chechnya, tensions were high. “He always believed that in spite of all threats, Memorial had to continue working in Chechnya in Estemirova’s memory,” Cherkasov pointed out to The Daily Beast.
Everybody in Moscow realized that time was crucial: local law enforcement agencies in Russia often carry out abductions, torture, and summary executions.
But that did not happen this time.
Memorial’s chairman, Alexander Cherkasov, told The Daily Beast he thanked the Kremlin’s human rights ombudsman, Tatyana Moskalkova, and Mikhail Fedotov of the Presidential Council for Civil Society Institutions Development and Human Rights. “They helped us to locate our senior colleague Titiyev at the police station and get a lawyer, finally, to see him in custody.”
Chechen policeman claimed they had discovered a bag with 180 grams of marijuana in Titiyev’s car. Marijuana possession is punished by up to two years in prison in Russia. To everybody who knew Titiyev, a Muslim believer and a sportsman, the accusations sounded absurd.
A serious professional and a family man, the 60-year-old Titiyev spent hours in the gym every day, it was impossible to imagine him dealing drugs or smoking joints. Indeed, in an official statement Fedotov suggested a criminal investigation be launched against the police for planting drugs in Titiyev’s vehicle.
That was also the operative theory among Titiyev’s friends. “This case is an outrageous fabrication aimed to destroy the last independent grassroots civil society organization in Chechnya,” Titiyev’s long time friend, Yekaterina Sokirianskaya, director of the Conflict Analyses and Prevention Center, told The Daily Beast.
Chechnya is Russia’s lead contender for top human rights offender, and several prominent people have been arrested for drug possession there recently, including activist Ruslan Kutayev and a reporter for Caucasian Knot, Zhelaudi Geriyev.
As Sokirianskaya suggested, Memorial was the last independent group working in the Chechen Republic. Last July, Memorial verified 13 names on the list of 27 people secretly shot dead by police in one night without any court hearing. Last month the speaker of the Chechen parliament, Magomed Daudov (nickname: “The Lord”), said that journalists and human rights defenders “should be separated from the society,” Cherkasov said.
The threat followed Instagram banning Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s account, which came after the U.S. put Kadyrov on the list of persons sanctioned by the U.S. Magnitsky Act, a collection of sanctions against human rights abusers that has widening reach in Russia and now in other countries around the world.
The Chechen leadership was furious, blaming independent journalists and activists for telling their “boss across the ocean” to take actions against Kadyrov. Daudov openly suggested a revenge: “If only Russia hadn’t had a moratorium [on the death penalty] we could have just bid these enemies of the people ‘Salaam Alaikum’ and be done with them,” Daudov said.
The European Union, the U.S. State Department and a number of leading international human rights organizations published statements calling the Kremlin to get involved, to ensure that Titiyev’s rights were protected in accordance with Russian law.
Earlier this week Petr Zaikin, a Moscow lawyer flew to Chechnya to take part in the defense. Speaking on the phone from the court building, Zaikin told The Daily Beast: “I have seen Titiyev. My client says that has been under psychological pressure, his interrogators threatened to harm his family.” Police have raided his home. According to the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, “police kicked all the women out, then locked OyubTitiyev’s house and left.”
So far Titiyev has not signed any confessions.
Memorial’s chairman, Alexander Cherkasov, said he has “no doubts" that the Kremlin leadership was aware of Titiyev's arrest, but because of the help that was given he still hopes Moscow will “apply pressure to investigate the falsification of his case."
This is the year of presidential elections in Russia, and Titiyev’s case is seen as a compass for the Kremlin’s future policy on human rights.