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One year ago, Oyub Titiev was arrested for drug possession Five facts about the case against a key human rights activist in Chechnya

Meduza
Said Tsarnaev / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Oyub Titiev led the Chechen branch of Memorial, a Russian organization that records human rights violations of the Soviet era and advocates for civil rights in the present day. On January 9, 2018, Titiev was arrested in Chechnya. Local police officers announced that they found nearly 200 grams of marijuana in his car. Titiev was charged with drug possession, and because of the unusually large volume he allegedly kept, he may face up to ten years in prison. The human rights advocate himself maintains that the marijuana was planted in his car after he was threatened by Chechen authorities. Titiev has spent the entire past year in a pretrial detention center, and his trial is currently ongoing. Here, Meduza explains the central developments that have shaped his case.

Oyub Titiev was arrested with a bag of drugs in his car, but human rights advocates are certain that his case is politically motivated

Oyub Titiev became the director of Memorial’s office in Chechnya after his predecessor, Natalya Estemirova, was killed in 2009. Most of his work took place out of the public eye. For example, it only came to light after the fact that he had worked on the so-called Case of 27 after authorities killed at least 27 people extrajudicially in the Chechen capital of Grozny in the early hours of January 26, 2017. He also covertly helped dozens of people with human rights cases at any given time. In September 2018, Meduza published a Russian-language report by Shura Burtin that described Titiev’s work and that of the Chechen Memorial in detail.

On January 9, 2018, police officers stopped Titiev’s car near the town of Kurchaloy. During a search, the police found a bag of marijuana in the vehicle. Titiev claimed that the bag was planted there and that the Kurchaloy police pressured him to confess to the crime.

Titiev’s colleagues at Memorial immediately argued that the case was politically motivated. Among other forms of evidence, they pointed out that Titiev is an observant Muslim and an enthusiastic advocate of healthy lifestyles. Russian and international human rights activists repeatedly issued multiple demands, asking for Titiev’s release, external advocacy for his case, and for the transfer of the trial out of Chechnya. The head of the Chechen government, Ramzan Kadyrov, responded numerous times to their demands with sharp criticisms of human rights efforts in Chechnya. He demanded that activists stop interfering in the case and attempting to communicate with investigators and court officials.

The investigation lasted half a year, and it was highly suspicious

Titiev was arrested on January 10, and he has been held in pretrial detention ever since. From a legal perspective, the case against him is suspicious in multiple ways.

First of all, the human rights activist was arrested illegally on the morning of January 9: no reason at all was given for the arrest. His car was searched without any witnesses, and then Titiev was stopped again after drugs were allegedly found in his vehicle. Local police claim that the entire video surveillance system controlled by the Kurchaloy division of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs “broke down” on January 9 such that it is impossible to verify the number of times Titiev was stopped. In court, it also became clear that 15 more video cameras located between the area where Titiev was stopped and the local police station had gone offline as well. Titiev had several mobile phones and tablets with him that were also lost.

Memorial’s report on Titiev’s case describes a large number of additional procedural violations that took place in the course of the investigation. For example:

  • The police officer who stopped Titiev’s car testified that he did so because he saw a package of marijuana from outside the vehicle. However, the package was found under a seat inside the car.
  • Official documents supposedly provided by multiple witnesses were all signed using the same signature.
  • The only witness who testified that Titiev smoked pot had himself been convicted twice of drug-related violations. Titiev’s lawyers have asserted that the witness is a police informant who is addicted to drugs.

The case’s witnesses don’t remember anything

Titiev’s trial began in July of 2018. At nearly every hearing, human rights advocates and diplomatic staff from the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe have been present.

For a narcotics case that, at least formally, does not differ from any other, Titiev’s trial included an unusually large number of witnesses. In all, more than one hundred people were questioned, including the entire staff of the Kurchaloy police department. Novaya Gazeta editor Yelena Milashina, who consistently covers events in Chechnya, said the officers were questioned in order to demonstrate that nobody saw Titiev at the station on the morning of January 9. The prosecution hopes this information will disprove the defense’s claim that Titiev was arrested illegally and then arrested a second time.

In their testimony, the police department staff answered every question posed to them by saying “no” or “I don’t know.” On occasion, their responses reached the point of absurdity: officers with fifteen years of experience in the force said they did not know basic rules about going on patrol or receiving and returning weapons. Some also said they did not remember whether they had ever arrested anyone in the entirety of their careers.

The investigator who led the case against Titiev also testified. Novaya Gazeta published a section of his testimony:

Attorney Marina Dubrovina: How did you determine that it was Titiev and not the police who placed the bag in the vehicle?

Investigator Nurid Salamov: It was determined in the course of the investigation.

Attorney Dubrovina: And by what methods was it determined?

Investigator: Ask Titiev!

The prosecution’s key witnesses were questioned privately

On August 28, Judge Marina Zainetdinova requested that the trial “not be turned into a show.” At the end of September, she closed it off to the press and the public because the personal information of Chechen security officials was being read out loud during the proceedings, and Zainetdinova was concerned that this would threaten “the national security of Chechnya.”

The defense pointed out that nearly all of the same information had already been made public in previous sessions of the trial. Titiev’s legal team made clear that a closed trial would violate his right to due process, but the judge rejected their arguments. Over the course of several closed hearings, the police officers who were directly involved in Titiev’s arrest were questioned along with two of their superiors. After their testimony had been submitted, the trial was reopened to the public.

Oyub Titiev maintains that he is innocent. His trial is reaching its end

In late November, Oyub Titiev himself gave testimony in which he claimed that the marijuana was planted in his car. One of his lawyers, Ilya Novikov, has argued that Titiev’s arrest is directly connected to the Case of 27 and to threats issued by the head of the Chechen parliament, Magomed “Lord” Daudov. In December 2017, Daudov blamed human rights activists for Instagram’s decision to block Ramzan Kadyrov’s account.

On December 10, Oyub Titiev’s arrest was extended to March 22, 2019. The last several sessions of his trial consisted of public readings of case materials, indicating that the trial is coming to an end. The first hearing scheduled for this year will take place on January 14. “Hearings at the Salinsky Court take place in such a benevolent atmosphere that an outside observer might think there is hope for a just verdict,” wrote Masha Shishchenkova of the international organization Front Line Defenders.

As early as August 2018, Ramzan Kadyrov announced that once Titiev’s trial ended, he would prohibit human rights advocates from entering Chechnya “just like terrorists and extremists.” The head of the Chechen government said people “who call themselves human rights advocates have no right to walk on my territory.”

Andrey Kozenko

Translation by Hilah Kohen