The list of Russian human rights concerns at this moment is pretty long — the poisoning death of a former KGB agent in England, Moscow’s involvement in the wars in Ukraine and Syria and the probable meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. Now, a particularly egregious cannabis case in Russia’s southern republic of Chechnya has come into the international spotlight.
The poisoning of the ex-KGB man Sergei Skripal catalyzed the widespread calls for a boycott of the upcoming 2018 World Cup, set to open in Russia this June. Australia is considering a boycott, and (not surprisingly) Ukraine’s government is openly advocating one. But some are also calling for pressure on the International Federation of Associated Football (FIFA) over the imprisonment of Oyub Titiev, the leading human rights activist in Chechnya, who was arrested on cannabis charges in January and faces years in prison.
Chechnya is a remote and politically isolated region, with the republic’s President Ramzan Kadyrov running what critics call a “totalitarian state within a state.” During a recent anti-drug crackdown in Chechnya, officials arrested Titiev — who had previously spoken out against the government’s anti-drug laws and internment of gay men in detainment camps.
At the time of his arrest, Human Rights Watch called the charges against Titiev “blatantly fabricated,” and expressed fears for his safety — noting the many threats and attacks on members of his rights organization, Memorial (the only human rights organization actually functioning in Chechnya). Titiev assumed leadership of Memorial after the 2009 abduction and assassination of its then-leader, Natalia Estemirova.
On Jan. 9, police said they found 180 grams of cannabis during a search of Titiev’s car. Just a week after his arrest, masked assailants staged an arson attack on one of Memorial’s regional offices.
Human Rights Watch director for Europe and Central Asia, Rachel Denber, in March traveled to Chechnya to attend a court hearing in which Titiev appealed the extension of his pre-trial custody. His appeal was, predictably, turned down.
In her write-up on the hearing, Denber also noted that the judge rejected the defense’s motion to allow Titiev to sit with his lawyers instead of in the dehumanizing defendants’ “cage.”
Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, is slated to host the Egyptian national football team during the World Cup. And as Denber reminds us, FIFA has just instated a vigorous new human rights policy, that supposedly applies to all its operations. She writes: “One way to put this policy into practice, and address the unjust and unseemly juxtaposition of Titiev in jail and FIFA enjoying the embrace of Kadyrov, would be for them speak up for Titiev at the highest level and seek his release.”
Meanwhile, things only seem to be getting worse for Titiev and his organization. Just days after Titiev’s hearing, Amnesty International reported the brutal assault on Sirazhutdin Datsiev, a regional director for Memorial. Datsiev was attacked from behind outside his home when an assailant delivered a severe blow to his head and then kicked him once he was on the ground. Datsiev was hospitalized, and is still recovering.
And this month, Amnesty noted the one-year anniversary of the “gay purge” in Chechnya, in which dozens of men were abducted, tortured and killed by authorities. To date, not one person has been held to account for these crimes.
“We have witnessed a shocking display of denial, evasion and inaction by the authorities, who have repeatedly refused to launch an official investigation into the reported heinous crimes,” said Amnesty’s Denis Krivosheev.
In fact, the “gay purge” has only been augmented with a similar wave of arbitrary arrests and torture of suspected drug users, as the Independent reported in January. According to the paper, this crackdown on drug users is almost an exact mirror of the crackdown on homosexuality.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time Chechnya’s unforgiving cannabis laws have been apparently used to squelch internal dissent. In a profile of the Chechen police state, rights advocacy website openDemocracy recalls the case of Jalaudi Geriyev, a young journalist working for a liberal online news site who was arrested for supposedly smoking hashish in April 2016. After being tortured in custody, Geriyev was convicted of cannabis possession and sentenced to three years in a prison camp. Prosecutors actually contradicted themselves about whether the packet of hashish was found in his backpack at the time of his arrest or in a subsequent search of his apartment. He remains at forced labor in a prison colony.
TELL US, do you think it’s a human rights abuse to be imprisoned for cannabis use?