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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."

Journalist Hajo Seppelt will be able to attend the World Cup in Russia next month, but it is unclear if he will be able to report freely.

Russia has backed down from an attempt to block a German reporter who broke the Russian doping scandal from entering the country as an accredited journalist during soccer's 2018 World Cup.

But it remains unclear whether Hajo Seppelt, an investigative reporter from Germany's ARD TV, will be able to cover the stories he wants to work on – or what barriers may be put in his way in Russia if he tries.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas announced on May 15 what he called an "intermediate success" in the case of Seppelt, who was told by Russian authorities the previous week that his visa had been revoked because he was on a government list of "undesirable people."

Maas said Russia informed the German government that Seppelt -- who has received press accreditation from FIFA, the governing body of world soccer and organizer of the June 14 to July 15 soccer championship -- "can at least enter the World Cup."

But Maas also said the German government was continuing to "work for free reporting" in Russia on Seppelt's behalf.

Hours after Maas's announcement, Russia's Investigative Committee said it would seek to interrogate Seppelt if he enters Russian territory.

Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Russia's drug-testing lab
Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Russia's drug-testing lab

An Investigative Committee statement said Russian authorities want to question Seppelt over a criminal case filed against the former head of Russia's drug-testing lab, Grigory Rodchenkov.

Rodchenkov, a key source for Seppelt's stories about a state-run systemic doping program for Russian athletes, now lives under protection at an undisclosed location in the United States due to fears for his safety.

Seppelt, from Germany, has repeatedly refused Russian requests to answer questions about Rodchenkov. But Seppelt could lose his right to protect his journalist sources if he enters Russian territory.

"I was surprised that things changed within just a few days" after the German government became involved in the visa case, Seppelt told RFE/RL on May 16. "Now we have to consider carefully which way we will go and what we will do. These things are being discussed now in Germany."

Seppelt also said he would not comment "at this moment" about whether he would answer questions from Russian investigators about Rodchenkov, saying the issue was currently being discussed "at a very high political level."

Revealing Reports

It was a documentary in 2014 by Seppelt, The Doping Secret: How Russia Makes Its Winners, that first revealed the extent of Russia's systemic doping program for its athletes -- including competitors at the 2014 Winter Olympics held in the Russian Black Sea city of Sochi.

The film, and Seppelt's follow-up reports, led to formal investigations by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the surrender by Russian athletes of medals won in Sochi, and the exclusion of an official Russian team from the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (foreground) and then-Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko (top) in Sochi in 2014
Russian President Vladimir Putin (foreground) and then-Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko (top) in Sochi in 2014

In a follow-up documentary in June 2016, Seppelt reported that then-Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko was directly involved in covering up doping cheaters and had helped them avoid bans.

Those allegations relied partially upon interviews with Rodchenkov, who gave a detailed account of how Russian athletes used performance-enhancing drugs and how state officials fraudulently prevented them from failing drug tests.

Rodchenkov's allegations of state-directed cheating included tales of involvement by Russian secret-service agents, hidden holes in laboratory walls for passing urine samples, and covert tampering of samples from Russian athletes.

The Kremlin denies the existence of a state-run doping program.

Russian authorities have launched a criminal case against Rodchenkov, suggesting he was to blame for missing samples.

Mutko has been promoted from sports minister to deputy prime minister.

Denied Entry

Seppelt believes Russia tried to deny his entry to the country as an accredited journalist because of his investigative reports on state doping.

"I am a member of the ARD journalists' team for the World Cup and I want to cover and wanted to work on stories on the occasion of the World Cup," Seppelt told RFE/RL on May 14, a day before German government intervention led Russia to reverse its ban.

"I am a sports reporter who wanted to cover, more or less, sports and related matters," Seppelt said. "As you can imagine, I am a doping journalist. I am also focusing on my subject, and this was obviously not favorable to the Russians.

"The Russian journalists' federation made clear that they don't like my work, and that's the way it is," Seppelt explained. "There was no official explanation, content-wise, about why they refused me and why I am allegedly on a list of undesirable people."

Vladimir Solovyov, head of the Russian Union of Journalists, has dismissed Seppelt's work as propaganda and said he may be in physical danger if he reports from Russia.
Vladimir Solovyov, head of the Russian Union of Journalists, has dismissed Seppelt's work as propaganda and said he may be in physical danger if he reports from Russia.

Vladimir Solovyov, head of the Russian Union of Journalists, said earlier this week that Seppelt should get a visa to enter Russia. But Solovyov dismissed Seppelt's work as propaganda and said he should "certainly be provided personal protection" because there are many people in Russia who want to cause him physical harm.

Other journalists working for Russian state-controlled media have criticized Seppelt as a propagandist or a political actor and rejected criticism that denying him a visa was an attack on press freedom.

Seppelt on May 16 told RFE/RL he would not comment on whether he felt threatened by Solovyov's remarks and that it was inappropriate to publicly discuss his security arrangements in Russia.

But Seppelt does believe that the current case has transformed his reporting on sports issues and doping into a broader story about how Russia interferes with foreign journalists who are able to report about issues that Russian state-controlled media cannot.

Human Rights Watch agrees, noting that allowing journalists the freedom to report is a central requirement of hosting the World Cup, and that FIFA should take steps to guarantee media freedom in Russia during the competition.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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