The United States, European representatives, and human rights groups in Russia and abroad have condemned the detention of a leading activist in Chechnya on narcotics charges and called for his immediate release.
The U.S. State Department said on January 10 that it was “troubled” by the reported arrest of Oyub 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, who is the head of the prominent Russian human rights group Memorial's office in Chechnya, and to “allow independent civil society to operate free from harassment and intimidation.”
Earlier, the Moscow-based Committee for the Prevention of Torture (KPP) called Titiyev's detention an "abduction" and said his rights under the Russian Constitution and other laws were blatantly violated.
European nations and groups also condemned the arrest. Germany urged Russian authorities to ensure Titiyev is treated in a "transparent manner and according to the rule of law" and said it would be closely monitoring the case.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Adebahr told reporters that the work of Titiyev and Memorial is "invaluable to many people, especially in Chechnya."
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe 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.
"I urge the Russian authorities to ensure [Titiyev's] human rights, including access to a lawyer and the rights to a fair trial, to physical integrity and dignity, and to protection from judicial harassment, criminalization, and arbitrary arrest,’’ said the OSCE's human rights director Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir.
The Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, Nils Muiznieks, called Titiyev's detention and possible prosecution "a very worrying signal."
On Twitter, Muiznieks called on the Russian authorities to "immediately ensure" Titiyev's release and provide him "with all the necessary safeguards in the current proceedings."
Hours after colleagues at the prominent Russian human rights group Memorial raised the alarm when Titiyev -- the head of its Chechnya office -- failed to show up for a meeting with an acquaintance on January 9, Chechen officials said he had been detained.
Officials said that police found a plastic bag with some 180 grams of suspected marijuana in his car, and a member of the Chechen council for human rights, Kheda Saratova, said he was suspected of transporting drugs.
KPP said that Titiyev's relatives were not informed about his detainment in a timely manner and that police in Chechnya's Kurchaloi district denied for some time that he was in their custody, violating his right to legal representation.
The circumstances of Titiyev's detention "do not correspond to the legal norms and therefore can be assessed as abduction," it said.
Memorial chairman Aleksandr 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.
Cherkasov also said that Chechen police violated Russian laws by withholding information about his detention from his relatives for several hours and denied his presence in the district police to his lawyer.
Tanya Lokshina, the Russia program director and a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), called the drug case against Titiyev “a pure fabrication.”
"We are aware of several other cases when critics of the government in Chechnya were put on trial on fraudulent drug charges and actually went to jail,” Lokshina told Reuters. “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."
Chechen State Human Rights Council member Kheda Saratova quoted Titiyev as saying that "his car just came out of a car wash and he couldn't possibly have had anything like [marijuana] in his car."
"He doesn't know who could have deliberately placed it there," she added. "He categorically denies that he has anything to do with this package or what the package contains."
Mikhail Fedotov, head of President Vladimir Putin's advisory council on human rights and civil society, said that the council had formally called on the Interior Ministry to investigate the possibility that drugs were planted in Titiyev's car.
Activists say that Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who was appointed to head the region by Putin in 2007, rules through repressive measures and has created a climate of impunity for security forces in the province. They claim that he bears responsibility for abuses including kidnappings, disappearances, torture, and killings of political opponents.
Natalya Estemirova, a Memorial activist who was investigating rights abuses in Chechnya, was kidnapped in Grozny and killed in 2009.
Kremlin critics say Putin supports Kadyrov, turning a blind eye to alleged abuses and violations of the Russian Constitution, because he relies on the former rebel to keep a lid on separatist sentiment and violence in Chechnya, the site of two devastating post-Soviet wars and an Islamist insurgency that spread to other mostly Muslim regions in the North Caucasus.