Head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov said in 2017 that,
“(Vladimir) Putin should be made president (of Russia) for life,” stating “strong rule is needed” and “democracy is all but an American fabrication.”
“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.”
Razman Kadyrov runs his South Russian federal province on an allotment of turbulence, agitation and dominance. His message to local police forces was broadcast on Chechen media last August, ruffling the feathers of amnesty observers worldwide. The trial in question ended on Monday. Needless to say, the defendant, a human rights watcher, was found guilty. His liberty, of which he would argue was already scantily draped, stripped from him.
This case was fabricated as you know, 27 of our legal arguments were rejected. What can I say, the verdict was guilty, how can it be fair?
The west condemn, deplore, berate. Occasionally they move beyond disyllabic words and under pressure from protesters back home impose sanctions. They have little effect. Chechnya, flickering between the shadows cast by the North Caucasus mountains, is physically, economically and culturally sheltered, and that suits its leader just fine.
Pictures from Al Jazeera show a weathered 61-year-old Oyub Titiev leaning against prison bars, restoring his strength as a judge’s nine hour ruling rolls towards its denouement. Titiev has been imprisoned since January, 2018 after police claim they found six ounces of marijuana wrapped in a plastic bag in his car. News of his arrest, 30 miles outside of Gronzy, the region’s capital, teetered through word of mouth and a chance sighting. A lawyer was sent for, but access was precluded by authorities for seven hours.
“This case was fabricated as you know, 27 of our legal arguments were rejected” Titiev says, swaying on the balls of his feet, newly energised, addressing a huddle of journalists poking video cameras through his cell’s bars. “What can I say, the verdict was guilty, how can it be fair?”
If only Russia hadn’t had a moratorium [on the death penalty], we could’ve just bid these enemies of the people ‘salaam alekum’ and be done with them.
As the office director at the Memorial Human Rights Centre, the last of its kind in the southern Russian republic, Titiev has investigated alleged abuse by Chechen authorities, including kidnappings, torture and the persecution of gay men. His allegations, which local authorities have repeatedly denied, have blacklisted him. Admired internationally but a black sheep back home.
He has received multiple death threats, many glorifying the abduction and murder of Natalia Estemirova in 2009 who occupied the directorship prior to Titiev. It is a sentiment not denounced by the Chechen Parliament but instead instigated from its very mouthpiece. Titiev’s arrest last year came less than two weeks after Magomed Daudov, the speaker of the Chechen parliament, painted human rights activists as “enemies of the people” and proposed they should be executed.
Following Kadyrov’s inclusion as a target for US sanctions under the US Magnitsky Act. Daudov, stained as the Head of the Chechen Republic’s right-hand-man, accused human rights defenders of, “Running to their boss across the ocean and pouring rivers of lies,” vouching: “I wouldn’t be surprised if they were involved in other subversion aimed at weakening our state….I think it’s time to send our enemies, those who don’t like a strong Russia, [out of the country] to their foreign bosses or to isolate them from polite society. …If only Russia hadn’t had a moratorium [on the death penalty], we could’ve just bid these enemies of the people ‘salaam alekum’ and be done with them.”
Cladded above the entrance of the boxy courthouse in the stunted town of Shali, a large poster of Russian President Vladimir Putin in mid-embrace with Kadyrov watches a light drizzle conclude. The photograph remains slightly perturbing, a staging more than a handshake but less than a cuddle with both twisting their hips to face the camera. Kadyrov in a state of pure awe; Putin somewhere between a Vice-Chancellor at a graduation and a proud dad welcoming a returning adult-son. It portrays their political relationship rather well. After his father and former President of Chechnya Akhmad, was assassinated by Islamist militants in May 2004, Kadyrov visited Putin on the same day just hours later. Since, Putin has mentored the then 27-year-old, who would become leader of the North Caucasian republic three years later at the age of 30.
At the time, Kadyrov was leading Chechen’s security forces and had been blamed for a string of kidnappings. Now, he is seen as the stabiliser in a tempestuous region. The Kremlin funds at least 80% of Chechnya’s annual budget, in return, Kadyrov keeps the historically pro-separatist area firmly attached.
The landscape’s scars are healing but will always remain visible. The two Chechen Wars of the 1990s and early 2000s featured blatant and sustained violations of international humanitarian law. While the city of Gronzy was gutted through attrition with the Russian army indiscriminate between soldier and civilian; Chechen-led militias launched a campaign of terrorist attacks including the 2004 Moscow Metro bombing and the Beslan school siege which resulted in the deaths of 40 commuters and 133 hostages respectively.
Presently, acting as Putin’s puppet, Kadyrov is eliminating dissenters. His army of loyalists, the Kadyrovtsy, patrol towns to dissuade potential insurgents. Any opposer is seen as an enemy of the state, it has become an area besieged with freedom violations. As Kadyrov furthers this trend he is not met with an outcry or even nonchalance but rather a collective blessing.
In 2017, Chechnya received international condemnation for its government’s abhorrent treatment of the LGBTQ+ community, with Human Rights Watch claiming authorities had: “Rounded up dozens of men on suspicion of being gay and that they are currently torturing and humiliating the victims.” Numerous Chechens have forcibly disappeared. At least three are said to have died.
Gay men are sent to clandestine camps in Chechnya, where they are electrocuted and beaten by unofficial prison guards without trial. In April Alvi Karimov, a spokesperson for Kadyrov, rejected the allegations, saying: “You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic.
“If there were such people in Chechnya, the law-enforcement organs wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning”
You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic.
Human Rights activist Titiev is one of very few Chechens prepared to criticise Kadyrov. But, now the brave, old man whose colleagues describe as a deeply religious teetotaller with a principled opposition to drug use, has been sentenced to four years imprisonment for possession of marijuana.
The EU has been critical but is yet to impose further sanctions. “The conviction of Oyub Titiev is but the latest example of the hostile and dangerous environment in which human rights defenders operate in the Chechen Republic,” Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović said in a statement on Monday. “This has a broader negative impact on the human rights situation in the region.”
As Kadyrov wishes to expel activists to the same marooned, mythical island which houses all of Chechnya’s extremists and terrorists, there is a cry of twisted irony with the latter two groups remaining rampant across the region. Spreading like wildfire, crackling from its fuel at the very heart of the government.