Masked activists torch Memorial’s human rights office in Ingushetia

nsnbc : Masked activists torched the office of Memorial human rights organization in the Russian Federation’s Republic of Ingushetia on Wednesday. The arson attack happened only a week after the arrest of Oyub Tityev, the head of Memorial’s branch in Chechnya, on drug charges his supporters say are fabricated. Police allegedly found a small quantity of marijuana in Tityev’s car.

Memorial Ingushetia_Arson_Jan 2018_RussiaSecurity camera footage captured two masked and still unidentified men climbing into Memorial’s office in the town of Nazran and setting three rooms on fire. Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest and most renown human rights organizations, issued a statement online on Wednesday, saying: “We see a clear link between this arson attack and the forces that are trying to destroy the work of Memorial’s human rights center in Chechnya and to force Memorial out of the entire North Caucasus region.”

Memorial’s office in Nazran has reported on human rights violations in Ingushetia for more than 17 years. The NGO said it considered the attack as “an act of terrorism” and asked regional authorities to conduct an investigation.

Wednesday morning’s arson attack came merely three days after the arrival of a group of activists, lawyers and investigative journalists who were covering  Oyub Titiyev’s case, the investigative Novaya Gazeta newspaper reported Wednesday. “[The arson attack] is a clear signal to human rights defenders that should be interpreted as a threat,” the newspaper cited Titiyev’s attorney Pyotr Zaikin as saying.

Oyub Titiev, born in 1957, took over for the Memorial Human Rights Center in Chechnya. Titiev took the helm for Memorial in Chechnya after the kidnapping and murder of his colleague Natalia Estemirova in 2009. In recent years, Titiev reportedly received many threats aimed at making him quit human rights work. Colleagues at Memorial as well as international rights organizations including Human Rights Watch, expressed fears that Oyub Titiev’s life and safety are in jeopardy after his arrest. Seven hours after his arrest Tuesday, Chechnya’s Interior Ministry confirmed they took him into custody, allegedly on suspicion of a drug-related crime.

Oyub Titiev, photo provided by Memorial Human Rights Center.

Oyub Titiev, photo provided by Memorial Human Rights Center.

At about 10:30 a.m. on January 9, a witness reportedly saw five to six police officials stop and search Titiev’s car by the Khumyk river bridge, not far from the town of Kurchaloi. The officials then took Titiev to the Kurchaloi district police department. When a lawyer from Memorial arrived at the police department that afternoon, an officer reportedly refused to let him in, claiming Titiev wasn’t on the premises.

Another police officer, however, reportedly admitted off the record that they had Titiev in custody. At about 5 p.m., Chechnya’s Deputy Interior Minister informed Russia’s federal ombudsperson, in response to her inquiry, that Kurchaoi police had detained Titiev. Around that time, Titiev’s lawyer was admitted to the station, and local police told him his client was being charged with unlawful drug possession.

Rights organizations report consistently that framing people for drug crimes has become an increasingly frequent tactic used by Chechnya’s authorities to punish and discredit their critics in the eyes of conservative Chechen society. Human Rights Watch reports that in summer 2014, a court in Chechnya sentenced local activist Ruslan Kutaev to four years in jail on fabricated, politically motivated drug charges after he criticized and disobeyed an order by Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. In fall 2016, another Chechen court sentenced journalist Zhalaudi Geriev to three years in prison on similarly fraudulent drug charges. Geriev worked for the Caucasian Knot, a Russian media portal which was critical of Chechnya’s leadership and had covered Kutaev’s case. Both men were tortured in police custody. Kutaev was released on parole at the end of 2017. Geriev remains behind bars.

The regime of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov is notoriously known for publicly smearing activists, proviking attacks and harassment by local security officials and “pro-government thugs”. Titiev’s colleagues at Memorial and activists at HRW report that “there is no doubt that Titiev’s arrest is an attempt to finally push Memorial – which has been extensively reporting on collective punishment practices, enforced disappearances, torture, punitive house burnings, and other abuses by local authorities – out of Chechnya.

Police reportedly found 180 gram s of Marijuana in Titiev’s car during a traffic stop. 180 grams of marijuana is a relatively small amount. The arrest of Titiev on drug charges casts new light on the Russian Federation’s in the eyes of most experts “senseless war on drugs”. In 2006, Russia reduced the limits for criminal possession of many drugs, with the criminal threshold for cannabis being reduced from 20 to 6 grams for cannabis, and 5 to 2 grams for hashish.

CH/L – nsnbc 18.01.2018

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