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Rights activist Oyub Titiyev (file photo)

The United States has expressed concern about a Russian court's decision to close rights activist Oyub Titiyev's trial to public, and repeated its call for Titiyev's release.

"We are troubled by the news yesterday‎ that in the baseless drug-possession case against Chechen human rights defender Oyub Titiyev, the judge ruled to close the trial to public observers," Michael Murphy, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, said on September 21.

"The eyes of the international community remain on this case and on the human rights situation in Chechnya. We again call for his release," Murphy said at the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw.

Earlier, Russia's Memorial Human Rights Center said that a judge in Chechnya had ordered closed-door court proceedings in the trial of Titiyev, one of Russia's leading human rights activists.

Memorial's press service said on September 21 that the judge in Chechnya’s Shali city court granted the prosecutor's request for closed hearings in the trial against the 61-year-old head of Memorial's office in Chechnya.

The prosecutor claimed Titiyev's case file contains state secrets and asked that some witnesses be questioned behind closed doors "to prevent the disclosure of personal information" about operating law enforcement officials.

Memorial said it expected the trial to be reopened to the public after certain witnesses testify.

Titiyev's lawyer, Pyotor Zaikin, said on September 21 that closing the trial to the public violated Titiyev's rights under the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

Titiyev has been in custody since January, when he was arrested on drug charges after police in Chechnya said they found a plastic bag with some 180 grams of marijuana in his car.

'Bogus' Charges

Titiyev insists the drugs were planted in the car as evidence against him. He faces a maximum 10-year prison sentence if convicted.

Mikhail Fedotov, the head of President Vladimir Putin's advisory council on human rights, called in January for Russia's Interior Ministry to investigate the possibility that the drugs were planted in the car.

But in May, the Chechen court rejected Titiyev's request to open a criminal case against police.

The United States, several European Union member states, and the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner have condemned Titiyev’s arrest and expressed concerns about the case.

Memorial has called the charges against Titiyev "bogus," saying they were "clearly fabricated as a means of silencing him."

Human Rights Watch has called the charges a "pure fabrication" and Amnesty International has called the case "a grave injustice that strikes at the heart of Russia’s human rights community."

"The Russian authorities are hellbent on silencing anyone who speaks out against human rights abuses in Chechnya...and Titiyev has faced years of harassment and intimidation," said Denis Krivosheyev, the head of Amnesty's Eastern Europe and Central Asia office.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service and Interfax
People place stuffed toys in front of the Russian Supreme Court during a rally to demand the release of two teenagers accused of "extremism" in a case they say is part of a growing Kremlin crackdown on Russian youth, in Moscow on August 15.

Russia’s Supreme Court has sharply narrowed when people can be charged under the country’s extremism laws, saying that simply “liking” or reposting material on social media does not alone constitute a crime.

The September 20 ruling follows a string of recent cases in which Russians have been charged for publishing materials, sometimes satirical, to social-media platforms such as VKontakte and Facebook.

Kremlin critics say that the cases are part of an ongoing government crackdown on online speech and that the authorities have used extremism laws to stifle dissent.

Vladimir Davydov, a deputy chairman of the court, told reporters on September 20 that merely reposting material on social media doesn’t automatically mean it’s a crime.

Authorities must prove there was intent to foment hatred or ethnic hostility, he said.

“Judges…should check not the actual fact of publication, not the ‘repost,’ not the ‘like,’ but they should check the actual motives,” he said.

He said the court would also review earlier convictions on extremism-related charges.

A growing number of Russians have been caught up by authorities’ strict -- and some say overly broad --interpretation of the country’s extremism laws.

Last year, a 27-year-old man in the city of Cheboksary was found guilty of "mass distribution of extremist materials" when he reposted a news item about his earlier conviction for reposting "extremist" content.

Authorities have also taken a dim view of satirical material and online publications, such as Internet memes, that poke fun at religious figures and beliefs.

In August, a 38-year-old man in the city of Barnaul was charged for a social-media posting that lampooned the head of the Russian Orthodox Church for wearing a pricey wristwatch.

With reporting by Current Time TV

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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