On 6 March in Moscow lawyers and human rights defenders held a press conference titled: ‘The trial of Oyub Titiev: on the eve of the final oral statements by the parties.’
On 21 February in Shali, Chechnya, the main hearings concluded in the trial of Oyub Titiev, head of the Grozny office of Memorial Human Rights Centre. Titiev has been charged with possession of drugs, charges which in our view have been fabricated. The final oral statements by the parties are scheduled for 11 March. Titiev will then make a final statement and, following that, the judge will issue the verdict in the case.
The news conference was attended by journalists from Russian and foreign media as well as by diplomats from Europe and North America (with representatives from about fifteen embassies). Below are summaries of what the participants at the press conference said.
Ilya Novikov, defence lawyer for Oyub Titiev: ‘The prosecution wanted to prove Titiev is lying about everything.’
Titiev’s case sets a record for the number of witnesses in a one-time drug possession charge. As a rule, no more than a dozen people are questioned in such cases. In Titiev’s case, the prosecution produced several dozen witnesses: police officers who were on duty on 9 January but said they had not seen Titiev or detained him.
‘Why did they have to be brought to court?’ Novikov asked. ‘The prosecution wanted to show that Titiev is lying about everything. That includes his claim that on 9 January he was arrested by people dressed in green uniforms from a police unit called the «Rapid Response Group." According to the investigators and prosecutors, if fifty police officers come to court and say, ‘No, we didn’t detain him and we have no such uniforms,’ this proves Oyub Titiev is lying… But it only weakens the investigators' position that 50 police officers were questioned in the case and we can show that they knowingly lied.’
Novikov paid particular attention to the figure of Amadi Baskhanov, the only ‘eyewitness’ who claims he twice saw Oyub smoking marijuana at the end of 2017.
In the course of a single evening — on 9 January 2018 — there were a number of ‘chance’ events. On a friend’s phone Baskhanov ‘happened’ to see a Novaya Gazeta article about Oyub’s arrest, complete with photograph of the human rights defender. That same evening Baskhanov ‘happened’ to meet an investigator he knows and told him about Oyub allegedly smoking marijuana. And that very evening, the investigator ‘happened’ to meet his acquaintance from Kurchaloi police station, to whom he in turn passed on the information.
Baskhanov admitted that he was himself a drug user, and had twice been arrested for drugs offences, although, unusually for the Chechen Republic, he was never sentenced to a term in prison. Lawyers for the defence believe Baskhanov was ‘under the influence of certain substances’ when he was interrogated in court. He became ill during the interrogation, lost control of himself and could not continue. Novikov is certain Baskhanov is a police agent.
‘The appearance of such a witness in the case means that on 9 January 2018 everything had been made ready not just for the arrest of Oyub Titiev, but for the production of an eyewitness who would say Titiev used drugs,’ the Novikov concluded. ‘This is very significant, given that we are talking about the Chechen Republic. It is one thing when an elderly man, especially one who is known to be a practising Muslim, is found to have drugs, but it is quite another when someone says that he saw him using them. The man’s reputation is instantly destroyed.’
Novikov believes that the people who initiated the prosecution wanted above all to stop Titiev from continuing his work. Secondly, they wanted to compromise him.
‘The story was constructed from the very beginning to discredit Oyub,’ said Novikov. ‘This is particularly obvious at the conclusion of the judicial investigation.’
Marina Dubrovina, defence lawyer for Oyub Titiev: ‘Everything that has happened to Oyub is a fabrication.’
Oyub’s defence lawyer Marina Dubrovina focused attention on the evidence presented by the prosecution. She demonstrated a small black plastic bag with 200 grams of tea (in appearance and weight similar to the one taken from Oyub’s car). She also showed how, according to the prosecution, sticky tape had been affixed to it.
On 9 January experts were given two bags to examine (one inside the other). On the inside bag, sticky tape had been affixed, and on the sticky side of the tape there were some of Titiev’s hairs.
‘How, during the investigation, did they remove this sticky tape, why did the inside plastic bag not tear, why did no one describe this sticky tape at the time the bag was seized by the police? There are no answers. It is crude falsification of evidence.’
According to Oyub, the police only obtained the sticky tape with hairs the following day, 10 January, in what he called a ‘strange and inhuman procedure.’ Sticky tape was wound round his head, then cut and sharply pulled off. And only after this was the sticky tape affixed to the small plastic bag. There was no other evidence to ‘connect Oyub to this plastic bag’ — no fingerprints, neither his nor anyone else’s.
Lawyers for the defence presented a motion to carry out a number of tests that would have shown this evidence to be an obvious and crude fabrication, but ‘99 percent of the motions presented by the defence have been rejected.’
Dubrovina also said that the prosecution was intended not only to intimidate Ouyb, but the whole Memorial organisation. After Titiev was remanded in custody the work of Memorial Human Rights Centre in the Republic was by and large wound up.
Petr Zaikin, defence lawyer for Oyub Titiev: 'Is the «Rapid Response Group» [GBR] an illegal armed group or is it a police unit?'
According to defence lawyer Petr Zaikin, the main reason for the prosecution of Oyub is his active and successful human rights work, in particular his exposure of secret prisons in Chechnya. The victims of human rights violations and their relatives reported information to Titiev as an authoritative person deserving trust. Titiev succeeded in gathering large amounts of information and media published reports based on this information. Thanks to Titiev’s work, at least several people have been successfully released from secret prisons. As in so many matters, Titiev was practically the sole source of trustworthy information for federal media and human rights defenders. He was a powerful irritant to the Interior Ministry in Chechnya.
'This irritation was a factor growing stronger over a very long time and, for that reason, it seems, they decided to stop Oyub Titiev working,’ Zaikin said. ‘This happened in January 2018. As soon as Oyub was detained, Memorial’s work in the Republic ended. The hands of all those hostile police officers were freed. The person who had been finding out and distributing all those compromising materials against them was isolated from society.'
Zaikin talked about the GBR units which can be found in virtually every territorial division of the Interior Ministry in Chechnya. They form part of the traffic police and their officers wear black or camouflage uniforms with a badge bearing the letters ‘GBR’ [ГБР]. It was officers from this unit that played such an important role in Titiev’s prosecution.
GBR officers, according to Zaikin, are complicit in the abduction of people and detaining them in secret prisons. Three GBR officers with a car painted in camouflage colours, and bearing the words 'Kurchaloi GBR,' detained Oyub on 9 January 2018 and took him to the Kurchaloi police station where they tried to get him to confess his guilt.
In order to refute Titiev’s account of events, he was detained twice (first by GBR officers and then in a ‘replay’ by regular traffic police). Prosecutors deny the very existence of the GBR.
However, materials from social media postings by officers from Kurchaloi district police and from the official website of the Interior Ministry of Chechnya show that this unit does exist. However, the judge refused to add this evidence to the materials of the case.
‘So one of two things is true, but not both: either an illegal armed group is quite openly active on the territory of the Republic of Chechnya under the name of ‘rapid response group,’ or this organisation exists lawfully. If the first is true, then this is a question for the FSB: how is this possible?’ Zaikin said. ‘If the unit exists on a lawful basis, then why do our opponents in the court deny their existence?’
Tatiana Glushkova, lawyer for Memorial Human Rights Centre: ‘Titiev’s lawyers were forced to contend not with the prosecutors, but with the judge.’
From the very start of the case, Titiev’s lawyers tried to get the investigation moved from Chechnya to a different region. The investigation was transferred from the Interior Ministry for the Republic of Chechnya to the Investigative Committee for the Republic of Chechnya, but this did not change the essence of the matter: the investigation remained in the Republic.
Nor were Titiev’s lawyers able to get the trial moved outside Chechnya. The lawyers cited a number of public speeches by the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, targeting human rights activists and Titiev personally, that indicated a trial in Chechnya could not be fair. Their efforts to get the trial moved to a different region were not successful.
Glushkova also noted the judge had granted only those motions put forward by the defence which could be refused only in violation of the Criminal Procedure Code.
‘Any argumentation, even the most implausible, that comes from the prosecutors is accepted as good and proper. Any argumentation from the defence is rejected as not being pertinent to the case and insufficiently plausible,’ Glushkova concluded.
Glushkova also indicated that, although the trial was supposed to be adversarial — the lawyers contending with the prosecution — in the Titiev trial that is not what has happened. In rejecting several motions, the judge referred to her own arguments rather than those of the state prosecution. In fact, the trial came down to a contest between the defence and the judge.
Glushkova said one complaint in the Titiev case — concerning the decision to remand him in custody- had been submitted to the European Court of Human Rights [ECtHR] last summer.
The lawyers are also preparing an application regarding the unjustifiable length of Titiev’s pretrial detention, which has now exceeded a year. Furthermore, after the sentence and appeal, an application will be submitted to the ECtHR regarding violation of the right to fair trial. The court’s obvious reluctance to test the defence’s version, and its rejection of most of the defence team’s motions, is not in accord with ECtHR jurisprudence and is in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
In each of the applications, the defence lawyers have pointed out, and will continue to point out, that the prosecution of Oyub Titiev is politically motivated.
Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch for Europe and Central Asia: «The Titiev case does not exist in a vacuum»
Rachel Denber stated that the Titiev case does not exist in a vacuum and has an obvious context: in Chechnya the authorities have been intimidating human rights defenders and journalists for nearly ten years. Moreover, dissidents and people who criticize the local government are subjected to harassment.
The Titiev case has evoked a major international response. Those who have spoken out in Titiev’s defence have included representatives of international organizations and structures, including the UN and various agencies of the Council of Europe, and information on the case has been heard at high-level meetings, for example, at the meeting between Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin, as well as in analytical publications (for example, a report on the results of the «Moscow Mechanism» of the OSCE): «The case is scandalous and has an obvious political motivation," Denber said. «We anticipate that the international response will still have an impact [on the situation].»
Oleg Orlov, director of Memorial Human Rights Centre’s «Hot Spots» programme: «International attention to the case is taking the Chechen authorities down a peg»
According to Oleg Orlov, international attention on the Titiev case is very important. Not only journalists and friends and colleagues from Russian and international human rights organizations are traveling to observe the trial, but also diplomats, especially from the EU and its member states and from North America. ‘This attention is taking the Chechen authorities, police, and courts down a peg,’ Orlov noted.
In the first few months after Oyub’s arrest, the authorities were putting the strongest possible pressure on the lawyers and putting them under surveillance. After the case took on an international significance, the pressure let up.
This international attention is also important for Oyub himself: he understands that his activities are being supported throughout the world, and that there is sympathy for his plight.
‘What happened to Oyub is a terrible link in a chain of events — the pressure put on Memorial in the North Caucasus,’ Orlov concluded. ‘After Titiev’s arrest, they burned down Memorial’s office in Nazran and our car in Makhachkala, threatened our staff working in Dagestan, and in March the director of our Makhachkala office was attacked. Most of these events, it is perfectly obvious, have a direct link to Oyub’s case. Criminal investigations have been opened into all these attacks, but they are not in fact being investigated.’
Photographs by Dmitry Borko