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Merkel Urged To Press Putin Over 'New Level Of Repression'

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (right) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin at the Hamburg G20 in July 2017.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged German Chancellor Angela Merkel to use her meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week to press for the release of "wrongfully" held human rights activist Oyub Titiyev and to raise other "key human rights issues."

Merkel is scheduled to arrive in the Russian Black Sea resort city on May 18 for talks with Putin, with discussions to likely focus on the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.

But HRW called on the German Chancellor to also bring up the matter of detained activists, including Titiyev, the chief of the Memorial human rights group's office in Grozny, Chechnya.

"Merkel’s principled voice has never been needed more than now," Wenzel Michalski, Germany director for the New York-based rights group, said in a May 16 statement. "She can use that voice to help free [Titiyev], and to make clear that the new level of repression in Russia will never be accepted as 'the new normal.'"

Michalski said that Merkel should urge Putin to ensure that the human rights activist is released before the start of the World Cup soccer tournament on June 14.

Oyub Titiyev, the head of regional branch of Russian human rights group Memorial, at a court hearing in Grozny. (file photo)
Oyub Titiyev, the head of regional branch of Russian human rights group Memorial, at a court hearing in Grozny. (file photo)

Titiyev has been in pretrial custody since January 9 on what HRW has called "bogus marijuana possession charges," and faces a maximum 10-year prison sentence if convicted.

Since the 1990s, HRW said, Memorial has "documented torture, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and other serious human rights violations in Chechnya."

The rights group also cited the cases of five Jehovah’s Witnesses in pretrial custody who are facing extremism charges "for nothing more than their religious activity."

HRW stated that the "current Russian government has been the country’s most repressive since the Soviet era."

"The government has forcibly registered human rights and other civic groups that engage in public advocacy as 'foreign agents' if they accepted even the smallest amounts of foreign funding, prompting many to close and pushing others near bankruptcy," the groups said.

In the past 18 months, it also said, police have arrested "thousands of peaceful protesters and beaten many."

And in recent years, authorities have "unjustifiably prosecuted dozens of people for criminal offenses on the basis of social media posts, online videos, media articles, and interviews, and shut down or blocked access to hundreds of websites and web pages."