‘Scary or not, there's work to be done’ A conversation with Chechen human rights leader Oyub Titiev, now released on parole following a dubious drug conviction
Oyub Titiev, who leads the Chechen branch of the human rights center Memorial, was released from prison on June 21. In March 2019, he was sentenced to four years in a penal colony for drug possession. Titiev has denied the charges and said the case against him was fabricated. In early June, a defense petition for Titiev to be released on parole was approved. Meduza special correspondent Sasha Sulim spoke with Titiev shortly after his release.
Meduza: Who was waiting to meet you outside the penal colony today?
Oyub Titiev: I can’t even name them all. There was an enormous number of people: relatives, friends, journalists — anyone you can imagine.
Who did you call first thing?
My loved ones all came to meet me in person, so we went home right away — to my brother’s house.
Why not to your house?
I haven’t been back to my house yet, but I will.
Your wife and children left Chechnya right after your arrest. Have they returned?
No, they haven’t come back. I haven’t seen them yet. We just spoke briefly over the phone — they know that I’ve already made it home.
What did you tell them?
For me, the most important thing is that they’re safe. We stayed in touch through my brother, who came to visit me every day.
In the penal colony, you mean?
Yes. On work days, I could see visitors every day.
So could you speak to them over the phone during your visits with your brother?
No, phones weren’t allowed in there, but we passed information to one another through my brother.
What did you do during those last 10 days in the colony after your parole petition was approved?
The same thing I had done before — practically nothing. There’s nothing to do there at all. We wasted entire days, took walks, read, or just sat there. In the evening, you could work out on the athletic field, but it was very poorly equipped.
Rumor is that you didn’t just work out yourself — you pulled other prisoners along too.
In the colony, I didn’t have to pull anyone along. They all work out anyway — they’re all muscular guys. In pretrial detention, that’s where my cellmates and I worked out together.
How was that physically possible?
In pretrial detention, we had just one hour outside a day, so you had to run, jump, do push-ups. There wasn’t any equipment there, so you had to make it up yourself, whether in the cell or outside.
Have you gotten really out of shape in the past year and a half?
I’ve always tried to stay in shape. It would have been impossible to keep up the daily workouts I had before I was jailed, but I tried to stay in shape however I could. I hope I’ll be able to get it all back soon.
And what have you been reading all this time?
In pretrial detention, I read a lot of Islamic literature, Russian classics, anything I could get my hands on. I read voraciously — there’s nothing to do in an indoor cell. In the penal colony, reading got harder because I had trouble sleeping. I was always sleep-deprived, and every time I picked up a book, I would fall asleep almost right away.
Our nighttime break was eight hours, and that’s enough for a decent night’s sleep, but for a Muslim who wakes up to pray as I do and spends about two hours praying, that only leaves six hours a day for sleep.
During the day, that sleep deprivation constantly made itself felt. But the library at the prison colony was good. You could find anything there, Islamic literature and classics included. They even asked me if I wanted to work there, but I usually spent my time there writing various documents for the other inmates.
And you’re not allowed to sleep during the day in the penal colony?
That’s right. They have a check every hour to make sure nobody’s doing anything forbidden.
Who was in there with you? What kind of people were they?
There were a lot of different people. A penal colony is like a dormitory where there are both good, wonderful people I got to know and plan to stay in touch with and people who didn’t necessarily require that kind of relationship. It was a diverse group. I learned a lot over the course of this year and a half.
What did you learn?
I studied the penal system in our republic from the inside. I studied the people who are imprisoned, the statutes they were imprisoned for, what percentage of them were imprisoned even though they were innocent. You can see all of that from the inside. If I had been free, I wouldn’t have known about those numbers, and now I can analyze that system. I gathered very useful information.
And what percentage are innocent?
In the course of a year and three months, nine people came through my cell in the pretrial detention center. Only three of them were criminals. So there, that gives you a sense.
Were the rest of them jailed for political reasons?
Not all of them. Some of them were there on the whims of negligent, criminal [police] officers. That isn’t even politics; it’s just the accountability system for criminal investigations in the Russian Internal Affairs Ministry. Every year, every operative has to increase their crime detection statistics, so if you put away 10 people last year, you have to do 11 this year. It’s criminal logic, but it’s still active. If an operative doesn’t increase their stats, they’re fired, so they have to make up crimes and jail innocent people. We have to get away from that. We have to find some kind of way out of that situation.
Did you realize right away which group you were in?
Naturally, as soon as I saw that packet [of drugs], I knew immediately what had happened. I’m no ordinary convict — it was clear from the beginning why they jailed me, no explanations needed.
Had you imagined that situation before?
Naturally, beginning in 2001 (when Titiev began working with Memorial — Meduza), I was ready for this. It’s true that you can’t possibly be ready for it every day, every hour, but we had worse things in mind as well.
Do you know why all this happened when it did, in January of 2018?
To be honest, I haven’t analyzed it all yet, so this is to be continued, but I don’t want to talk about it right now. I’ll try to analyze all this and write a report for Memorial about my time in both institutions. I’ll try and come to some conclusions there.
Before January of 2018, did anybody approach you, threaten you?
No, never — I was just doing my job. The fact that something was happening around me was clear for various reasons. We understood that something negative was brewing, but I didn’t think something like this was possible right before a [presidential] election.
Were there any moments when you felt truly frightened and anxious?
I’ve been frightened and anxious in all these 17 years of work. I knew perfectly well that everything could fall apart at any moment, and I got used to living with that knowledge. That’s why they brought me in to Memorial in the first place. Scary or not, there’s work to be done; you have to do something.
And when you were behind bars?
In the pretrial detention center and the colony, there were all kinds of moments — calm ones, restless ones, and anxious ones.
Would you like to tell us about how they tried to pressure you [to confess]?
That’s not worthwhile at this point.
Is it a question of safety?
Were there any moments when you just thought, “To hell with them! I’ll just sign a confession”?
Of course not. (Laughs.) There was nothing like that, there couldn’t be, and there will never be. My religion forbids it, and not just for moral or ethical reasons. Islam forbids confessing to actions you did not commit. Unfortunately, the circumstances were such that I couldn’t appeal the sentence. I was forced not to do that. But I’ll talk about those circumstances later, too.
What were you most nervous about: your family, Memorial’s work, your staff?
Of course, I was most nervous about my family, my relatives, and my colleagues who were left who had worked with me directly. I had to think about and be nervous about them all. Thank God, they’re all fine, and I’m glad it all turned out this way.
And your nephew, Adam Titiev, is still in a prison colony?
Yes. He got three years. I hope he will also be released on parole soon.
Was that one of the tools they used to put pressure on you?
That was also a made-up, stupid move that they didn’t have to make. But they decided to think it up anyway.
Is Memorial continuing to work in Chechnya?
No. We closed our office immediately. My colleagues stopped working and looked aftertheir own safety. We will continue working in other regions, not in Chechnya.
Did you hear that [Chechen government head Ramzan] Kadyrov said at the end of your trial that he wanted to prohibit human rights advocates from entering Chechnya?
I didn’t have access to any media, so I didn’t have much information, but I heard bits and pieces from my colleagues. In any case, it was hard to do human rights work here beforehand, too. There are only a few organizations left, and even those are barely breathing.
Will things be even harder now?
Of course. Because there won’t be information, and people are scared. They won’t come forward, and if people don’t come forward for themselves or their relatives, human rights advocates are powerless, they can’t do anything, not only in Chechnya but in the whole country.
What upset you most in the investigation and during your trial?
The Muslims who grow long beards and shave their moustaches but still come into court, stand behind the podium, and spit out dirt and lies — that’s deplorable. That has nothing to do with Islam.
Did that really surprise you?
It’s impossible to surprise me anymore. It just makes me very angry.
Did you hear about Ivan Golunov’s case?
I’ve been following it — my colleagues told me about it. I’m very glad it all ended this way. He suffered, but I believe his release is a victory in itself.
How do you explain the fact that the public was unable to defend you in the same way?
Everything depends on the president’s reaction. I contacted him two days after my arrest, and I still haven’t gotten a response a year and a half later. But the response over there was momentary, I’m sure, and that’s why everything turned out like normal, you might say. Everything depends on what the president thinks of us. Whatever he thinks, that’s how it turns out.
Did anything depend on his relationship with the head of the republic [Kadyrov]?
It would be wrong for me to comment on that relationship.
Has your attitude toward Chechens changed at all?
No. I’m still a Muslim, just as I was before. My attitude toward my compatriots remains the same; nothing has changed.
Can you imagine living outside Chechnya? Do you plan to leave?
I would consider it, but I haven’t decided yet. I still have a lot to do at home, a lot to restore. I’ll decide everything soon.
Translation by Hilah Kohen