Human rights activist Oyub Titiyev has been charged with drug possession and ordered jailed for two months in pretrial detention in Chechnya, a lawyer and associates said.
A lawyer for Titiyev, Pyotr Zaikin, told the Interfax news agency that a court in the Chechen city of Shali granted a prosecution request at a custody hearing on January 11.
Zaikin vowed to appeal the ruling, which came as supporters said Chechen authorities were piling pressure on Titiyev's relatives and the European Union voiced strong concern about his detention on a marijuana charge colleagues contend was fabricated.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini became the latest Western official to voice concern over the arrest of Titiyev, the head of the Moscow-based human rights group Memorial's office in Chechnya, calling for his release in a pointed statement.
Mogherini said the case "continues a worrying trend of arrests, as well as attacks, intimidations and discrediting of independent journalists and human rights defenders who work in that region of the Russian Federation."
She said Titiyev's arrest was "especially concerning given that his predecessor, [Natalya] Estemirova, was killed in 2009 and that no one has yet been brought to justice for this crime."
Earlier in the day, Memorial chief Aleksandr Cherkasov said that Titiyev was charged with possession of a "large amount" of illegal narcotics, which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Titiyev, 60, was detained on January 9 by police who claimed to have found about 180 grams of marijuana in his car.
Memorial said that on January 10, police stormed into Titiyev's home in the village of Kurchaloi in a search for Titiyev's 28-year-old son Bekkhan and the activist's brother Yakub.
After discovering the two men were not at the house, Memorial said, police forced other relatives there to leave, locked the doors and confiscated the keys -- warning that the family would face "big problems" if Bekkhan and Yakub did not report to police.
A leading member of Moscow-based Memorial, Oleg Orlov, said "it is clear that a criminal case is being fabricated in order to persecute Oyub for his human rights activities."
There’s no doubt that Titiyev's arrest is an attempt to finally push Memorial...out of Chechnya."-- Tanya Lokshina, Human Rights Watch
Meanwhile, the chairman of President Vladimir Putin's advisory council on human rights, Mikhail Fedotov, urged Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin to look into the circumstances of Titiyev's detention.
In a letter to Bastrykin, Fedotov said there are "grounds to believe" that Titiyev may have been targeted for his human rights activities and that the marijuana police said was found in his car "could have been planted," the council said.
The new developments increased concerns in Russia and the West about Titiyev's case, which rights defenders suspect is an example of the authorities in Chechnya inventing alleged crimes to target activists and silence dissent.
They may also raise fears that Chechen authorities are using the threat of collective punishment to advance their goals -- a practice that rights groups including Memorial say the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, has turned to in the past.
"There’s no doubt that Titiyev'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," Tanya Lokshina, Human Rights Watch’s Russia program director, said on January 9.
In addition to the EU, human rights groups and other countries have condemned Titiyev's detention and called for his release.
A group of six top rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Front Line Defenders, issued a joint statement on January 11 calling the drug charges against Titiyev "bogus."
"Titiyev should not be in custody, where we fear his health and safety are at risk," said Hugh Williamson, Central Asian director at Human Rights Watch.
The U.S. State Department said on January 10 it was “troubled” by the reported arrest of Titiyev, calling it “the latest in a string of reports of alarming recent human rights violations in Chechnya.”
A statement called on Chechen authorities to release Titiyev and “allow independent civil society to operate free from harassment and intimidation.”
The Moscow-based Committee for the Prevention of Torture (KPP) on January 10 called Titiyev's detention an "abduction" and said his rights under the Russian Constitution and other laws were blatantly violated.
Germany urged Russian authorities to ensure Titiyev is treated in a "transparent manner and according to the rule of law."
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Adebahr told reporters that the work of Titiyev and Memorial is "invaluable to many people, especially in Chechnya," adding that Germany is closely monitoring the case.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said Russia has an "obligation" as a member state "to ensure that law enforcement bodies do not abuse the law to prevent human rights defenders from carrying out" their work.
OSCE human rights chief Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladotti urged Russia to ensure Titiyev's rights "including access to a lawyer and...a fair trial, to physical integrity and dignity, and to protection from judicial harassment, criminalization, and arbitrary arrest."
The Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, Nils Muiznieks, called Titiyev's detention "a very worrying signal" and called for his release.
Chechnya's information minister, Dzhambulat Umarov, told Current Time TV that he saw no political motivation behind Titiyev's detainment.
"If this is a misunderstanding, I assure you it will be cleared up," Umarov told the Russian-language network, which is run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
Memorial chairman Cherkasov said on January 10 that Titiyev’s home was searched overnight and that no drugs or other illegal items were found.
Cherkasov, who has known Titiyev for years, said the accusation of drug possession or transport was "implausible" and that the detention was most likely motivated by his human rights work.
Lokshina, of Human Rights Watch, called the drug case against Titiyev “a pure fabrication” and spoke of "several other cases when critics of the government in Chechnya were put on trial on fraudulent drug charges and actually went to jail.”
“This is yet another case of this sort, and it seems that the Chechen authorities are now frequently using these particular tactics to silence their opponents," she told Reuters.
Kadyrov's spokesman, Alvi Karimov, rejected statements by Western governments and human rights organizations, calling them "attempts to influence the ongoing investigation."
"This is an impudent, unscrupulous, and unabashed attempt to meddle in and impose pressure on the investigation.... Neither Memorial, nor anyone else is entitled to conclude if someone is guilty or not guilty," Karimov said on January 11.
Activists say that Kadyrov, appointed by Putin in 2007 to head the Russian region, rules through repressive measures and has created a climate of impunity for security forces in the province. Rights activists claim Kadyrov has been responsible for abuses that include the kidnappings, disappearance, torture, and killing of political opponents.
Natalya Estemirova, a Memorial activist who was investigating alleged rights abuses in Chechnya by regional authorities and Russian military forces, was kidnapped and killed in Grozny in 2009.
Kremlin critics say Putin turns a blind eye to alleged abuses and violations of the Russian Constitution by Kadyrov because he relies on the former rebel to control separatist sentiments and violence in Chechnya, the site of two devastating post-Soviet wars and an Islamist insurgency that spread to Russia's other mostly Muslim regions in the North Caucasus.