KURCHALOY, Russia (AP) — A court in Russia's province of Chechnya on Monday sentenced a prominent rights activist to four years imprisonment on drug charges widely seen as an effort by authorities to stifle a critical voice.
The court in the Chechen town of Shali found Oyub Titiyev guilty of drug possession and sent him to a prison colony, which means he will be able to travel home to see his family two days a weeks. Titiyev has denied the charges, and his lawyers said they would appeal the verdict.
The 61-year-old rights activist, in a traditional Muslim skull cap, spent the entire day in a metal cage in court, sometimes reclining on the bars. The courthouse was packed with his relatives and neighbors, some of whom at times would doze off at the monotony of the judge's reading which took more than eight hours.
Titiyev has been in custody since his arrest in January 2018 in what has been largely perceived as a vendetta against a rare critic of the Chechen government. As the head of the Chechen office of prominent rights group Memorial, he played a major role in exposing extrajudicial killings, kidnappings and torture perpetrated by security forces in Chechnya.
Chechnya's regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who previously dismissed rights activists as liars and traitors, publicly called the 61-year-old Titiyev a "junkie." Titiyev's supporters said the case aimed not only to silence the activist, who is known as a devout Muslim, but also discredit him in the eyes of the community.
Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic late on Monday said that the charges against him "lacked credibility" and called Titiyev's conviction "the latest example of the hostile and dangerous environment" for rights activists in Chechnya.
Chechnya witnessed two devastating wars in the 1990s and early 2000s before a separatist leader switched sides to support the Russian government in return for almost full control over this region in the North Caucasus. Since his father's assassination in 2004, Ramzan Kadyrov has ruled this predominantly Muslim area as a personal fiefdom, using generous Kremlin subsidies.
Titiyev's case closely resembles criminal prosecution of a politician and a journalist in 2014 and 2016, respectively. Both men have been a thorn in the side of the Chechen government, and both men were charged with drug possession, which they say were planted on them.
The case against Titiyev was intended to "punish him for his rights activism and drive out Memorial, which is the last remaining rights organization present in Chechnya," said Tanya Lokshina, associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch.
Titiyev was arrested after a traffic patrol stopped his car and found what they said a suspicious bag in his car. The prosecutors later said it was marijuana.
Tests didn't find any drugs in Titiyev's blood and two dozen neighbors gave testimony in court to say that he wasn't known for taking drugs — a bold act in Chechnya where people who come out even with mild criticism of authorities end up being harassed and intimidated.
Titiyev's wife and three children fled Russia after he was jailed. His eldest daughter still lives in Chechnya.
The dusty streets of Titiyev's home village of Kurchaloy, which is about 35 kilometers (22 miles) away from regional capital Grozny, were empty last weekend, except for a few boys riding bicycles past Titiyev's family house.
Titiyev's 72-year-old sister Zharadat Titiyeva charged that the authorities sought not only to silence him, but also smear his reputation as a devout Muslim who doesn't drink or smoke, let alone take drugs.
"They decided to disgrace him in front of the people: 'Look who your defender really is: he's just a junkie,'" she said.
Titiyev's trial could become a watershed moment for Chechnya where the crackdown on rights activists has been unrelenting.
The Chechen leader last year pledged unhindered access to hearings in the Titiyev case, but vowed to make Chechnya after the end of the trial a "no-go zone" for human rights activists whom he described as being no better than "terrorists and extremists."
Titiyev took the lead of Memorial in Chechnya in 2010 after his boss Natalya Estemirova, a single mother of a teenage girl, was kidnapped and brutally murdered. Her death remains unsolved.
His sister recalls how proud the whole family was when he took up activism.
"But when Estemirova was killed we started getting worried," she said. "We were saying: 'You should quit this job.' And he would say: 'If I quit, who would be left then?'"
In his final statement in court last week, Titiyev recalled the release of villagers captured by federal forces during the second war in Chechnya as a turning moment in his life that kept him going all those years.
"Even if we had managed to save just one person in the line of our work — and I know there were many of them — then our work wasn't in vain," Titiyev said.