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Wednesday 17 January 2018

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A senior staff member with Memorial has linked the fire in Ingushetia with pressure that the rights group has come under in neighboring Chechnya, where the head of the rights group's office has been arrested on a drug-possession charge.

GROZNY, Russia - Memorial says its office in Ingushetia has been torched in a "terrorist" attack that the prominent Russian human rights group said was part of a campaign to chase it out of the North Caucasus.

A leading member of Memorial, which has sought to document abuses in the region despite years of pressure and the killing of at least one activist, told RFE/RL on January 17 that assailants set fire to the office in Nazran, Ingushetia's largest city, overnight.

Oleg Orlov said security cameras showed that two masked men arrived at the office at about 3:30 a.m. local time, used a ladder to climb to the second floor, and broke into the premises through a window.

A photograph on the group's website showed a gutted blackened room, and Orlov said that three of the six rooms in the building were seriously damaged.

"We consider it a terrorist attack," he told RFE/RL by telephone, saying that its apparent goal was to "frighten ordinary people" and deal a blow to Memorial.

Orlov linked the incident to the pressure Memorial has come under in neighboring Chechnya, where the head of the rights group's office was arrested on January 9 and is being held on a drug-possession charge, which he and supporters contend is false.

'Massive Pressure'

"This attack is not random. A criminal case was fabricated against Oyub Titiyev and...massive pressure is being imposed on Memorial in Chechnya," he said. "It looks like they consider Memorial an enemy that they want to remove" from the North Caucasus.

Memorial echoed that assessment, saying that its office in Nazran "is exclusively dedicated to human rights problems in Ingushetia and in no way linked to Chechen issues."

"Nonetheless, it's obvious to us that there is a link between the arson attack with those forces who are trying to destroy the work of Memorial in Chechnya and squeeze Memorial out of the entire North Caucasus region," it said in a statement.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (file photo)
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (file photo)

Human rights activists say that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who was appointed by Putin in 2007 to head the region in the North Caucasus, rules through repressive measures and has created a climate of impunity for security forces. They also charge that Kadyrov has been responsible for abuses that include kidnappings, disappearances, torture, and killings of political opponents.

Natalya Estemirova, who was Titiyev's predecessor at Memorial in Chechnya and was investigating alleged rights abuses in Chechnya by regional authorities and Russian military forces, was abducted and killed in 2009.

Kremlin critics say President Vladimir 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 other mostly Muslim regions in the North Caucasus.

In a statement, the Emergency Situations Ministry branch in Ingushetia reported the fire but said nothing about the cause and made no mention of Memorial.

'Brazen Crime'

Tanya Lokshina, a Moscow-based senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, condemned what she called the arson attack and also linked it to Titiyev's case.

"There is little doubt that this brazen crime has everything to do with Memorial’s current work in Chechnya and the attempts by Memorial’s leadership and lawyers to ensure Oyub Titiyev’s release," Lokshina wrote on Facebook.

Chechen rights activist Oyub Titiyev (file photo)
Chechen rights activist Oyub Titiyev (file photo)

Titiyev, 60, was detained on January 9 by police who claimed to have found about 180 grams of marijuana in his car.

In a letter addressed to Putin and made public on January 16, Titiyev said he was innocent, accused police of planting the drugs, and voiced concern that he could be tortured or his family threatened in an effort to extract a confession.

Western governments and human rights organizations condemned Titiyev's arrest and called for his release.

Titiyev's attorney Pavel Zaikin said on January 15 that police in Chechnya have ignored Titiyev's medical needs and kept him in a temporary police detention unit that has no medical staff.

On January 14, Zaikin said that some of Titiyev's relatives left Chechnya after police imposed pressure on them.

Memorial has charged that the case against Titiyev was "fabricated" in retaliation against the activist's human rights activities.

Putin's advisory council on human rights has urged the Investigative Committee to look into the circumstances of Titiyev's detention, saying there are "grounds to believe" the marijuana "could have been planted" in his car.

In December 2014, the office of another human rights group, the Committee to Prevent Torture, was destroyed in an apparent arson attack in Chechnya's capital, Grozny.Nobody has been held accountable.

The Levada Center was listed as a foreign agent in 2016 under a new law aimed at countering what the Kremlin claims is outside influence on public life in Russia. (file photo)

Trying to gauge what Russians are thinking about the upcoming presidential election just got tougher.

The country's main independent polling agency, the Levada Center, has said it has stopped publishing results of opinion polls on the election.

The reason? Levada fears legal repercussions if it does.

That's because the center was listed as a foreign agent in 2016 under a new law aimed at countering what the Kremlin claims is outside influence on public life in Russia.

Levada is not a foreign company, but has received foreign funding. And, in the eyes of authorities, that makes it a foreign agent.

Lev Gudkov, Levada's director, told the Russian daily Vedomosti on January 16 that the agency is conducting election polling but will not publish the results during the campaign.

Why? Gudkov said he fears if that data was published now it could be interpreted as election meddling. And if that happens, it could lead to moves to close down the pollster, Gudkov said.

Commenting on the pollster's announcement, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on January 16 that it was "unfortunate" that Levada would not be able to publish its polls, but said it was a matter of following the law.

Putin, whose approval ratings top 80 percent, is set to easily win a fourth, nonconsecutive, term in the March 18 vote.

Polling on Putin's public support is largely consistent among Levada and state-owned polling agencies, including the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM).

Voter Turnout

Where they have differed, however, is on recent polling on possible turnout for the presidential election.

In December, Levada polling data found that 28 percent of respondents said they would definitely cast a ballot in the election. A further 30 percent said they were "likely" to vote.

Polling numbers from VTsIOM were much more optimistic. According to its polling, 70 percent of respondents were set on voting, with a further 11 percent "likely."

Levada Center director Lev Gudkov (file photo)
Levada Center director Lev Gudkov (file photo)

Gudkov noted to Vedomosti that no Russian election has had a voter turnout higher than 78 percent.

Valery Fedorov, the director of TVsIOM, told the daily that his agency was predicting voter turnout for the Russian presidential election at between 67 and 70 percent.

He also offered an explanation as to why his agency's polling data on possible turnout differed from Levada's.

"We carry out telephone polling, while Levada, probably, does it door to door. I trust the quality of our polls," said Fedorov.

While it may seem a point of dispute only among experts, possible voter turnout for the Russian presidential election is turning out to be a key factor in what is expected to be a predictable Russian presidential election outcome.

Anticorruption crusader and opposition leader Aleksei Navalny has been barred due to a fraud conviction that he and his backers say is politically motivated. Navalny has called on supporters to boycott the election.

Many others have declared their intention to run in March. They include veterans of past campaigns -- ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and liberal Grigory Yavlinsky -- as well as Communist nominee Pavel Grudinin and TV personality Ksenia Sobchak.

While none poses a serious challenge to Putin, the Kremlin is worried about voter apathy and has focused on boosting turnout to make Putin's victory as impressive as possible.

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