A court in Russia's Chechnya region has sentenced human rights activist Oyub Titiyev to four years in a penal colony after finding him guilty of possessing illegal drugs, a charge he and his supporters say was baseless and politically motivated.
Judge Madina Zainetdinova announced the verdict and sentence at the court in the town of Shali on March 18, as the 61-year-old Titiyev, wearing black clothes and a black skullcap, was confined behind bars in a courtroom cage.
Titiyev, the head of the Moscow-based human rights group Memorial's office in Chechnya, is to serve the sentence in a colony settlement, a relatively low-security penitentiary.
The trial was being closely watched by Western governments concerned about the rule of law in Russia and by human rights groups that have denounced it as a farce.
Amnesty International said the verdict demonstrated how "deeply flawed" the Russian justice system is, and called the sentence slapped on Titiyev "an affront to human rights, reason, and justice."
The guilty verdict against Titiyev is a "gross injustice to him" and "a disgrace to [the] Russian criminal justice system," according to Human Rights Watch.
The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights said the verdict followed an "unfair and absurd" judicial process.
And the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, said that Titiyev's conviction was "the latest example of the hostile and dangerous environment in which human rights defenders operate" in Chechnya.
Prosecutors had urged the Shali district court to find Titiyev guilty and sentence him to four years in prison.
The reading of the verdict and sentence lasted for more than nine hours.
The activist has been in jail since January 2018, when he was arrested after police stopped him in his car and alleged that they discovered marijuana in the vehicle.
In his final statement in court on March 11, Titiyev said that he was certain he will be convicted, describing the trial as a "spit at justice" and a remarkable exercise in "hypocrisy and cynicism."
Titiyev's lawyers reiterated the contention that their client is innocent and that the drugs were planted.
They described the case as part of an effort to push Memorial out of Chechnya, ruled for 12 years by Kremlin-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, and other parts of Russia's North Caucasus.
Human rights organizations, the United States, several European Union member states, the European Parliament, and the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner have condemned Titiyev’s arrest and voiced concern about the case.
In a statement on March 15, Human Rights Watch said the "bogus" case against Titiyev was based on "fabricated" evidence and aimed to "stifle reporting on human rights abuses in Chechnya."
Activists contend that Kadyrov, who was appointed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2007, has committed serious human rights abuses, including the widespread use of kidnapping, torture, and extrajudicial killings by forces under his power.
Kremlin critics say Putin has given him free rein because he relies on him to keep a lid on separatism following two devastating post-Soviet wars in Chechnya.