Simon Cosgrove & Yuri Dzhibladze: Lessons of Oyub Titiev’s trial - The work of human rights defenders in Chechnya must continue

posted 6 May 2019, 09:30 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 8 May 2019, 09:41 ]
 6 May 2019

 By Simon Cosgrove and Yuri Dzhibladze 

 Pictured: Oyub Titiev at his trial

In the second week of March, as representatives of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, we travelled to Chechnya to observe the final day of the eight-month-long trial of human rights defender Oyub Titiev. Titiev is the head of the regional office in Grozny of a leading Russian human rights NGO, Memorial Human Rights Centre. Following his arrest on 9 January 2018, the prosecution of Titiev has become a major international concern and has prompted, along with statements by international organisations and heads of states, the launch of an investigation by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the so-called OSCE Moscow Mechanism. Since his arrest, Titiev has been held in custody. The charges laid against him of possessing drugs have been condemned by human rights groups as fabricated and Amnesty International has declared him a prisoner of conscience.

Since the end of the second war in Chechnya, the authoritarian rule of Ramzan Kadyrov has seen widespread violations of human rights, including the persecution of political opponents, disappearances, secret prisons, torture and extrajudicial executions, all conducted with apparent impunity. Human rights defenders who have sought to challenge this impunity have been particular targets. In 2006, the prominent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who wrote extensively on human rights violations in Chechnya, was shot dead in Moscow after she had been threatened by Kadyrov. In July 2009, Natalia Estemirova, head of the Grozny office of Memorial, was murdered, also undoubtedly in connection with her human rights work. The following month, Chechen human rights defender Zarema Sadulayeva and her husband Alik Dzhabrailov were murdered.

Trumped-up criminal cases and physical attacks against the critics of the government are typical for Chechnya. In 2014, Ruslan Kutaev, a civil society activist and an academic, was jailed for four years on trumped-up heroin possession charges after criticising Kadyrov in public. In 2016, Zhalaudi Geriev, a journalist with the independent Caucasian Knot news outlet, was sentenced to three years on drug charges. Both Kutaev and Geriev alleged they were tortured in custody to extract confessions. In March 2016, human rights defender Igor Kalyapin, head of the Joint Mobile Group of human rights defenders, was attacked by unidentified masked men in Grozny. More recently, Kadyrov has himself publicly spoken in support of honour killings; and over the last two years dozens of people suspected of being gay (as the Russian LGBT Network has documented) have been rounded up and tortured, and some have been killed, to international outrage.

Since 2009 when Titiev took over as head of Memorial’s Grozny office from his predecessor, Natalia Estemirova (for whose murder that year no one has yet stood trial), he has led the work of recording and publicising the continuing human rights violations in the region and challenging the impunity of those who perpetrate them. A few weeks before his arrest, he was investigating the case of the extrajudicial execution of 27 residents of Chechnya. This, as many observers say, could have triggered the attack against him. Others believe that the prosecution of Titiev was retaliation for Western personal sanctions against Kadyrov.

Whatever was the trigger, it is widely believed that Titiev’s prosecution has been intended to put a stop to the activities of human rights NGOs in the region altogether. After all the repressions against critics of the regime, Titiev was probably the last person in the republic whom local people trusted and to whom they were not afraid to speak about abuses by the authorities. In a detailed account presented at his eight-month trial, Titiev, well-known for his strong Muslim faith, healthy lifestyle, love of sport, educational work with young children and aversion to drugs and alcohol, claimed the drugs were planted in his car by police officers. By organising a criminal prosecution of this highly respected, morally impeccable and very decent person, the Chechen authorities aimed not only to put Titiev behind bars but also to discredit and present him as an immoral person and a fraud. They sought to intimidate the disaffected and undermine people's faith in justice and human dignity. After all, if such a person as Titiev, seen by many as a role model of dignity and moral integrity, eventually turned out to be a fraud, then literally no one can be trusted, and there is no choice but to obey those who possess power and would never renounce the use of violence.

Two weeks before Titiev’s arrest, Magomed Daudov, speaker of the Chechen parliament and Kadyrov's right hand, called human rights defenders ‘enemies of the people.’ Kadyrov himself referred to Titiev as a traitor and drug addict, openly ignoring the presumption of innocence, and claimed that after the trial is over, human rights defenders would be banned from Chechnya. Given statements such as these and the general lack of independence of courts in Russia in politically-charged cases of this kind, there was little chance the trial would be fair, all the more so in a region such as Chechnya where all areas of public life - including the justice system - are by all accounts dominated by the will of the individual ruler and his closest associates. No one in Chechnya, including judges, is supposed to dare openly to challenge the words of the strongman leader. Requests by defence lawyers to have the trial moved outside Chechnya to ensure its impartiality were rejected by the judge in the case, Madina Zainetdinova.

Before Titiev’s trial had even begun there was a general acceptance among observers that a conviction would be the predetermined outcome. The only question observers considered uncertain was the length of Titiev’s sentence.

Not surprisingly, Titiev’s right to a fair trial has been “repeatedly violated,” with the trial “marred by numerous irregularities” and the prosecutors’ case not standing up to “basic scrutiny”, as Amnesty International pointed out. Equality of arms was absent as almost all motions by the defence were turned down by the judge and Titiev’s claim that the drugs were planted by the police was not properly investigated. Evidence was clearly forged by the investigation. Some of the many examples include, for example, the fact that more than 15 CCTV cameras in the area where Titiev’s car was stopped and a plastic bag with marijuana was allegedly planted were suddenly not working precisely at that time; a sticky tape with Titiev's hair was for some reason attached to the plastic bag, while the same tape had been put on his head earlier during interrogation when the police imitated torture; and the only witness who testified that he had seen Titiev smoking marijuana, a repeated drug user who miraculously escaped imprisonment, did not recognise Titiev during cross-examination.

In his final address to the court Titiev issued an eloquent rebuttal of the charges in a speech pervaded by dismay and bitterness that he was about to be jailed on a fabricated charge intended to end his human rights work. Titiev also called for those responsible for his fraudulent prosecution to be brought to justice.

The trial proceedings we witnessed at Shali district court, as well as previous hearings, were closely followed by Titiev’s colleagues from Memorial and other NGOs from across Russia, representatives from Human Rights Watch, the International Federation for Human Rights and the World Organisation Against Torture, along with officials from the embassies of Germany, the Netherlands and the EU, and journalists based in Moscow and Europe.

The level of national and international presence was unprecedented throughout all eight months of the trial, accompanied by numerous statements by inter-governmental organisations and extensive media coverage. This encouraged local residents to speak up, defying the atmosphere of intimidation: almost twenty of Titiev's neighbours came to the court to testify, paying tribute to his moral integrity and saying that under no circumstances would they believe that he possessed drugs. Even some of the prosecution witnesses from among the police officers, forced by their superiors to provide false testimony against Titiev, were visibly uncomfortable. Locals whom we talked to on our way to the court all knew too well that the real reason Titiev was on trial had nothing to do with drugs. Authorities’ plans to discredit Titiev clearly failed: no one in Chechnya and beyond accepted the official line.

The massive international solidarity campaign has worked and brought the positive outcome no one really expected. On 18 March, one week after the final day of the trial hearings, Judge Zainetdinova read out her judgment over more than nine hours, sentencing Titiev to four years in a settlement colony, as opposed to the four years in a prison colony requested by the prosecutors. More importantly, the judge changed the qualification of the crime from one of a ‘high’ degree of gravity to ‘medium’ gravity, thus making Titiev eligible to apply for parole in May 2019 after having served one third of his term, counting from the day of his arrest in January 2018. Given the conditions in Chechnya under which the trial took place and the overall highly repressive atmosphere in the region, this is the best possible outcome one could have hoped for. In just two months, Oyub Titiev may be a free man.

The international attention focused on Titiev’s case was a powerful assertion of international solidarity with the human rights defender and an important statement of the absolute requirement for observance of international standards of fair trial. As Amnesty International has pointed out, the efforts by Titiev’s supporters within and outside Russia “provided a level of protection to Oyub Titiev against torture and ill-treatment frequently used in Chechnya and throughout Russia to extract ‘confessions’.”

It is vital in the aftermath of the trial that Titiev’s case continues to be the focus of public attention, both within Russia and internationally, to ensure his future humane treatment and rapid release after the parole request has been made in May. Titiev, who has decided not to appeal the verdict, intends on his release to continue his human rights work.

By putting Titiev, a courageous Muslim man who has dedicated his life to defending human rights, behind bars, the Chechen authorities have shown they are seeking to end the work of human rights defenders in the republic. International civil society and human rights organisations must rise to that challenge, working with governments, inter-governmental institutions and media outlets. The work of civil society organisations and human rights defenders in the Chechen Republic and the North Caucasus must continue.

Simon Cosgrove is chair of Rights in Russia, a British NGO working to promote information about the human rights situation in Russia and the work of human rights organisations. Yuri Dzhibladze is president of Moscow-based Centre for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights. They both are participants and former board members of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, a network of NGOs from Russia and the EU working to strengthen links between civil society groups on the basis of shared values of democracy, rule of law, human rights, civic participation, and sustainable development.

Pictured: Simon Cosgrove (left) and Yuri Dzhibladze (right) outside the district court in Shali, Chechnya