Echoing Soviet-era justice, court sends Chechen rights activist to penal colony

Chechen human rights activist Oyub Titiyev awaits sentencing while city in the dock of a district court in Shali, Chechnya, Russian Federation.

Echoing Soviet-era justice, court sends Chechen rights activist to penal colony


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Life has proven to be cheap and justice non-existent ever since Chechnya, the small Muslim republic in Russia’s volatile North Caucasus, suffered through two bloody wars with Moscow and nearly two decades of iron-fisted rule by the Kadyrov clan. 

In the 28 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which saw the Chechen independence movement attempt to break away from the Russian Federation in 1991, the region has been subjected to some of the worst violence and acts of crimes against humanity that the world has seen in the post-Cold War era.

After two bloody separatist wars and the return of Moscow’s heavy-handed rule over the republic, the Chechens have seen the situation stabilise, but the gross violations of human rights continue.

Those who are suspected of being former rebel fighters or individuals who are deemed to be not sufficiently loyal enough to the Kremlin’s handpicked ruler of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, are subject to arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances.

Oyub Titiyev, the local head of the Russian human rights group Memorial, has now been listed amongst those who have fallen victim to the selective form of justice that characterises the rule-of-law in Kadyrov’s Chechnya.

A court in Shali, once a fortified stronghold of Chechen fighters during the 1990s wars against Russia, has sentenced a prominent human rights activist to four years in a penal colony after a widely condemned trial that culminated in the judge reading out the verdict for nearly 10 hours.

Titiyev’s case has become emblematic of the crackdown on human rights activists and other independent voices in Chechnya under the ruthlessly watchful eye of Kadyrov, a man who fought against the Russians in the 1994-1996 First Chechen War, but later switched sides and helped Moscow crush his countryman’s drive for independence during the Second Chechen War in 1999-2001.

Since branding himself a personal soldier of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kadyrov’s power has grown far beyond the free rein that he was given by the Kremlin to quell the Chechen rebel movement. His absolute authority over the local intelligence and security services, as well as his ability to skirt the Russian constitution in favour of his own hodge-podge interpretation of various forms of Islamic Law, and a robust cult-of-personality has transformed Chechnya into a pseudo-absolute dictatorship that has the full backing of Moscow.

Titiyev was sentenced to four years in a penal colony after being arrested and charged with being in possession of 200 grams of marijuana, which were suspiciously found in his car during a routine traffic stop shortly after Titiyev publicly revealed details of abductions and torture by Kadyrov’s security services and the FSB, modern Russia’s successor to the Soviet KGB.

The case against Tityev is eerily reminiscent of Soviet-era trials when human rights defenders and dissidents were often arrested, framed, and found guilty of being in possession of an illegal substance or of being psychologically unbalanced.

In August, after Titiyev’s trial had already begun, Kadyrov doubled-down on his drive to oust human rights groups from Chechnya, going so far as to declare, “I officially declare to human rights activists: after the end of the trial, Chechnya will be forbidden territory for them, like it is for terrorists and extremists.”

Both Kadyrov and the FSB have long wanted to turn Chechnya into a no-go zone for international aid workers and human rights groups. Titiyev’s predecessor at Memorial, Natalya Estemirova, was abducted and killed in the Chechen capital Grozny in 2009 – a case that remains unsolved a decade later.

Three other human rights workers based in Chechnya were killed in the same year as Estemirova and in 2016 a group of journalists and human rights activists were attacked by a group of masked men as they approached the administrative borders between Chechnya and neighbouring Ingushetia.

In April 1995, an American disaster relief specialist working for the Soros Foundation, Fred Cuny, disappeared without a trace while attempting to make contact with the head of the pro-independence Chechen Republic of Ichkeria forces, Aslan Maskhadov. It was later discovered that the FSB had spread rumours amongst the jittery Chechen fighters that Cuny was a Russian agent, which led to his forced disappearance the hands of Rizvan Elbiyev, a Chechen rebel counterintelligence commander.

The brutality of Cuny’s disappearance was matched only by the bizarre arrest of former Radio Liberty’s Russian-language journalist, Andrei Babitsky, during the Second Chechen War.  Babitsky reported on the sheer scale of the destructiveness of Moscow’s second major conflict with the Chechens with dispatches from inside the besieged Grozny. His reporting made him a target of the Russian intelligence services and forces loyal to the Kadyrov clan. He was later kidnapped by the FSB and held as a prisoner of war with Chechen combatants at a notorious detention camp that was known for torture and abuse before being released in a POW swap.

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