Russian Media‎ > ‎

Elena Milashina: Why the prosecution of rights defender Oyub Titiev demonstrates not the strength, but the weakness of Ramzan Kadyrov [Novaya gazeta]

posted 20 May 2018, 11:58 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 20 May 2018, 12:01 ]
4 May 2018

By Elena Milashina, journalist, winner of the Moscow Helsinki Group Prize: 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Novaya Gazeta

The Chechen authorities have come unstuck in their attempt to imprison the last human rights activist in Chechnya and finish off Memorial, the oldest human rights organisation in the Caucasus. On 9 May, the case against Oyub Titiev, who is accused of possession of marijuana, will have been underway for exactly four months. And this is exactly the kind of simple criminal case which the local police apparently have under complete control! It is no accident that Chechnya ranks third among the republics of Russia in the growth of reported crime related to illegal drug trafficking. At this rate, before the end of the year Chechnya will again become one of the leaders in drug-related criminal cases– as formerly, in terrorism cases. 

The question of why, the better life becomes in Chechnya, the more drug addicts there are, is clearly a rhetorical one. Article 228 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation is effectively a conveyor belt operating on an industrial scale. In some places conveyor belts carry cars; in Chechnya it’s criminal cases. The assembly process is smoothed to the point of automation; torture results in a frank confession, then follows a plea bargain, a sentence, and off they go to prison. In the case of Oyub Titiev there was, for the first time, a failure: he held out. He did not capitulate, and did not confess. The Chechen conveyor belt stalled, deciding the tricky question of how to investigate a criminal case without any confession. It’s like trying to drive a car without an engine…

While Investigator Khadukaev was racking his brains, the “safe” days ended, and Chechen justice, and with it the entire republic, were in trouble in a big way. The thing is that the trial of Chechen prisoner of conscience Oyub Titiev will have to begin almost simultaneously with the World Cup, which is being held in Russia for the first time. And it so happened that on the eve of the 2018 Cup FIFA (the International Federation of Association Football) announced its new policy, under which the entire football world is now concerned with human rights and their defenders who are being persecuted in the host country of the Finals. Chechnya, which is simultaneously hosting Oyub Titiev (in a pre-trial detention centre) and the Egyptian team during the championships, will have in essence to conduct an experiment on itself, testing out the new FIFA policy. It has to be said that the Chechen authorities openly adhere to the principle that “it doesn’t matter how they played, the main thing is the score on the board,” in football as in life. But the verdict in the Titiev case is so predictable that the score – five years in jail, or ten – is of no interest to anyone. The interesting thing is the game, in which the “Chechen team” is letting in one goal after another.

Oyub Titiev’s case arose from the closure of Ramzan Kadyrov’s Instagram account, which was removed at the end of a last year because the Chechen leader figured on the public-access part of the Magnitsky List in connection with the massive, systemic human rights violations. The loss of four million subscribers was a very painful blow for Kadyrov. Nevertheless, the leader of Chechnya did not point the finger at Titiev. That’s not his level of operation.

Memorial has changed the tactics of its work in the republic since 2009, when Chechen human rights defender Natalia Estemirova was killed. Since then, no representative of the local Memorial has gone "head to head" with the Chechen authorities. This task was taken on by Russian human rights organizations and federal media. By the end of last year, the situation on the Chechen front was very difficult, it seemed that the war was almost lost. Journalists and human rights defenders almost stopped traveling to Chechnya. They were met there not with bread and salt, but with flour, green disinfectant, baseball bats and an "indignant public" - purely Chechen hospitality.

Rare, fleeting guests made their way to the "most peaceful region of Russia" like partisans, using all available means of defence, including the presidential administration. I remember our trip of last November to a court in Grozny. We were defendants in a suit brought by the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Chechnya, and had been summoned to the Supreme Court of Chechnya. We could not fail to appear.

I remember the regime of strict secrecy - we did not fly directly to Chechnya, we did not spend the night there. I remember an extra set of clothes, taken in case they were pelted with Chechen cakes. I remember the Stavropol driver, who was paid more than the ticket from Moscow cost and back, to ensure he would wait until the hearing was over, and not disappear earlier out of fear.

Now compare. 3 and 4 May. The most "non-working" working days of the year. Dacha, shashlik. In our professional language - "the dead news time." But this is in Russia. And in Chechnya - a crowd of journalists and human rights defenders, storming the building of the Supreme Court of the Chechen Republic, where an appeal against the extension of the pre-trial detention for yet one more (a fifth) month of Oyub Titiev was to be heard.

It’s a complete non-event. Basically, it’s not a court hearing, but a mere technical procedure. But if such an enormous number of people come from all over Russia just for this, how many people will come to Chechnya when the real trial starts?

Now we all calmly take a direct flight to Grozny. We stay in the city’s hotels and drink coffee in its cafes. The ridiculous placards borne by an indignant public – “Gannushina is the mother of anarchy” and “Kalyapin is a defender of terrorists” – have disappeared.

They have been replaced by normal people who don’t avoid us – on the contrary, they say thank you to the “enemies of the Chechen people” for everything they do for their people. Kseniya Sobchak and Grigory Yavlinsky opened the season of “political tourism” in Chechnya, and it will peak in the summer at Oyub Titiev’s trial. Items on the ‘Titiev case’ aren’t just featured on federal media – journalists from the deepest regions of Russia are covering the case too. These same media sources, which at first glance appear to be provincial and devoid of influence, were the ones which began and successfully carried out the campaign to save another Memorial staff member, Yury Dmitriev [the historian of Stalin’s terror accused of making pornography - trans.].

We could talk another time, at length, about the international reaction, since just one announcement by the US State Department, on the day after Oyub Titiev’s arrest, gave Kadyrov a genuine shock. In short, there haven’t been as many experts in foreign affairs in Chechnya for ages – from people on the staff of leading human rights organisations to foreign diplomats. Titiev’s arrest has become a critical point, when turning back becomes impossible. And whoever gave the head of Chechnya this short-sighted idea of revenge is now in a very difficult position. Because he set Kadyrov up.

Paradoxically, Oyub Titiev’s case, in which Chechen courts have meekly prolonged his detention for the sixth time in four months (most recently on the grounds that, while he has been in prison, Titiev’s house has been demolished and he has nowhere live in Chechnya), doesn’t demonstrate Ramzan Kadyrov’s strength, but his weakness. Kadyrov, who is in complete control of the justice system but, at the same time, keeps someone behind bars on trumped-up charges on the eve of a world-class sporting event – a person whose fate draws negative attention like a magnet – is left looking extremely short-sighted. It would be more useful to keep Oyub under house arrest, or just get him to sign a declaration that he wouldn’t leave the city. He’d never go anywhere, and even if he did, so much the better. In a situation where investigators have no evidence of guilt whatsoever, Titiev’s escape would be the best outcome – it would provide cast-iron proof of his guilt, and would mean the end of Memorial in Chechnya once and for all.

Ramzan Kadyrov is not at all a stupid man, but while he has the right to punish, he doesn’t have the right to pardon. Only one person in Russia has that right. It was that person who, just before the Sochi Olympics in December 2013, pardoned Khodorkovsky, Pussy Riot and the Greenpeace activists. What did he do that for? Because it would be hard to think of a better way to gag his critics and, simultaneously, demonstrate his absolute power. The authorities’ power is shown most clearly in an act of mercy, even if this mercy is exclusively used for cynical purposes. But what Putin can do with just one stroke of the pen can’t be done by anyone else in Russia.

In this situation, there’s only one thing for Ramzan Kadyrov to do: make his region as comfortable as possible and meticulously ensure the safety of his enemies. After all, nowadays it’s even forbidden to get state employees to rally against ‘newcomer’ journalists and human rights defenders. So, Oyub Titiev’s case is “not political – it’s about drugs”. The only thing left for them to do now is to stick to this version.

Translated by Anna Bowles and Suzanne Eade Roberts