World News

Arrest in Chechnya Reflects Effort to Drive Out Dissidents, Activists Say

Posted January 10, 2018 5:37 p.m. EST

MOSCOW — A human-rights activist in Chechnya has been detained by police on drug possession charges in a case that colleagues and international observers say is part of a concerted effort to drive dissidents out of the Russian republic.

The activist, Oyub Titiev, 60, has run the Chechen branch of the Memorial Human Rights Center since the 2009 abduction and murder of another activist, Natalya Estemirova, a case that remains unsolved.

Chechnya’s Ministry of Internal Affairs reported on its website that police found a plastic bag with what it said police suspected was marijuana weighing about 180 grams when they stopped Titiev’s car for a document inspection Tuesday. The drug possession offense is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

The U.S. State Department called Wednesday for the immediate release of Titiev, saying his detention was “the latest in a string of reports of alarming recent human rights violations in Chechnya.”

Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, said that Titiev had made an “invaluable contribution over many years” and that the case was based on “dubious charges that lack credibility.”

Chechnya, in the North Caucasus, is run by the strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. His father, Akhmad, had fought against Russia during the first Chechen war in the mid-1990s but later allied with President Vladimir Putin, who appointed him in 2000 to run the region. The elder Kadyrov was assassinated in 2004.

Ramzan Kadyrov’s Facebook and Instagram accounts were recently deactivated because he had been added to a U.S. sanctions list. Kadyrov has reportedly been involved in torture, kidnapping and killing, as well as other human rights abuses.

Tanya Lokshina, the Russia program director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that fabricated drug charges were being used by authorities to rid Chechnya of people who question Kadyrov’s rule.

“Framing people for drug crimes has become an increasingly frequent tactic,” she wrote.

In 2014, Ruslan Kutaev, a politician and activist, was sentenced to four years in prison on heroin possession charges after disobeying Kadyrov’s orders not to hold a conference marking the 70th anniversary of the deportation of Chechen and Ingush people under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. He was released late last year.

Zhalaudi Geriev, a journalist with the Caucasian Knot news website, which is critical of Kadyrov, was sentenced to three years in prison on marijuana possession charges in 2016.

Human Rights Watch said that both men were tortured in police custody.

The Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center has also come under fire from Russia’s federal authorities. In 2014, it was placed on an official registry of “foreign agents” after it was accused of receiving funds from abroad and engaging in political activity.