Rights activist gets 4-year sentence in Russia’s Chechnya

Oyub Titiev, the head of human rights group Memorial in Chechnya, attends his verdict hearing at a court in the town of Shali, in Chechnya, Russia, March 18, 2019. (REUTERS)
Updated 19 March 2019
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Rights activist gets 4-year sentence in Russia’s Chechnya

  • Chechnya’s regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who previously dismissed rights activists as liars and traitors, publicly called the 61-year-old Titiyev a “junkie”

KURCHALOY, Russia: A court in Russia’s province of Chechnya on Monday sentenced a prominent rights activist to four years imprisonment on drug charges widely seen as an effort by authorities to stifle a critical voice.
The court in the Chechen town of Shali found Oyub Titiyev guilty of drug possession and sent him to a prison colony, which means he will be able to travel home to see his family two days a weeks. Titiyev has denied the charges, and his lawyers said they would appeal the verdict.
The 61-year-old rights activist, in a traditional Muslim skull cap, spent the entire day in a metal cage in court, sometimes reclining on the bars. The courthouse was packed with his relatives and neighbors, some of whom at times would doze off at the monotony of the judge’s reading which took more than eight hours.
Titiyev has been in custody since his arrest in January 2018 in what has been largely perceived as a vendetta against a rare critic of the Chechen government. As the head of the Chechen office of prominent rights group Memorial, he played a major role in exposing extrajudicial killings, kidnappings and torture perpetrated by security forces in Chechnya.
Chechnya’s regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who previously dismissed rights activists as liars and traitors, publicly called the 61-year-old Titiyev a “junkie.” Titiyev’s supporters said the case aimed not only to silence the activist, who is known as a devout Muslim, but also discredit him in the eyes of the community.
Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic late on Monday said that the charges against him “lacked credibility” and called Titiyev’s conviction “the latest example of the hostile and dangerous environment” for rights activists in Chechnya.
Chechnya witnessed two devastating wars in the 1990s and early 2000s before a separatist leader switched sides to support the Russian government in return for almost full control over this region in the North Caucasus. Since his father’s assassination in 2004, Ramzan Kadyrov has ruled this predominantly Muslim area as a personal fiefdom, using generous Kremlin subsidies.
Titiyev’s case closely resembles criminal prosecution of a politician and a journalist in 2014 and 2016, respectively. Both men have been a thorn in the side of the Chechen government, and both men were charged with drug possession, which they say were planted on them.
The case against Titiyev was intended to “punish him for his rights activism and drive out Memorial, which is the last remaining rights organization present in Chechnya,” said Tanya Lokshina, associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch.
Titiyev was arrested after a traffic patrol stopped his car and found what they said a suspicious bag in his car. The prosecutors later said it was marijuana.
Tests didn’t find any drugs in Titiyev’s blood and two dozen neighbors gave testimony in court to say that he wasn’t known for taking drugs — a bold act in Chechnya where people who come out even with mild criticism of authorities end up being harassed and intimidated.
Titiyev’s wife and three children fled Russia after he was jailed. His eldest daughter still lives in Chechnya.
The dusty streets of Titiyev’s home village of Kurchaloy, which is about 35 kilometers (22 miles) away from regional capital Grozny, were empty last weekend, except for a few boys riding bicycles past Titiyev’s family house.
Titiyev’s 72-year-old sister Zharadat Titiyeva charged that the authorities sought not only to silence him, but also smear his reputation as a devout Muslim who doesn’t drink or smoke, let alone take drugs.
“They decided to disgrace him in front of the people: ‘Look who your defender really is: he’s just a junkie,’” she said.
Titiyev’s trial could become a watershed moment for Chechnya where the crackdown on rights activists has been unrelenting.
The Chechen leader last year pledged unhindered access to hearings in the Titiyev case, but vowed to make Chechnya after the end of the trial a “no-go zone” for human rights activists whom he described as being no better than “terrorists and extremists.”
Titiyev took the lead of Memorial in Chechnya in 2010 after his boss Natalya Estemirova, a single mother of a teenage girl, was kidnapped and brutally murdered. Her death remains unsolved.
His sister recalls how proud the whole family was when he took up activism.
“But when Estemirova was killed we started getting worried,” she said. “We were saying: ‘You should quit this job.’ And he would say: ‘If I quit, who would be left then?’“
In his final statement in court last week, Titiyev recalled the release of villagers captured by federal forces during the second war in Chechnya as a turning moment in his life that kept him going all those years.
“Even if we had managed to save just one person in the line of our work — and I know there were many of them — then our work wasn’t in vain,” Titiyev said.


North Korea’s Kim inspects new submarine, signals possible ballistic missile development

Updated 2 min 55 sec ago
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North Korea’s Kim inspects new submarine, signals possible ballistic missile development

  • The new data and combat weapon systems of submarine was built under Kim’s “special attention”
  • Experts said the size of the new submarine suggests it would eventually carry missiles

SEOUL: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspected a large newly built submarine, state news agency KCNA reported on Tuesday, potentially signaling continued development of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) program.
Kim inspected the operational and tactical data and combat weapon systems of the submarine that was built under “his special attention,” and will be operational in the waters off the east coast, KCNA said.
KCNA said the submarine’s operational deployment was near.
“The operational capacity of a submarine is an important component in national defense of our country bounded on its east and west by sea,” Kim said.
KCNA did not describe the submarine’s weapon systems or say where and when the inspection took place.
North Korea has a large submarine fleet but only one known experimental submarine capable of carrying a ballistic missile.
Analysts said that based on the apparent size of the new submarine it appears designed to eventually carry missiles.
“We can clearly see that it is a massive submarine — much larger than the existing one that’s been well known since 2014,” said Ankit Panda, senior fellow at the US-based Federation of American Scientists.
“What I find significant about the political messaging here is that this is the first time since a February 2018 military parade that he has inspected a military system clearly designed to carry and deliver nuclear weapons.”
“I take that as an ominous signal that we should be taking Kim Jong Un’s end-of-year deadline for the implementation of a change in US policy with the utmost seriousness.”
A South Korean defense ministry spokesman said they were monitoring developments but could not confirm if the submarine was designed to carry missiles.
Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul, said Kim likely also wanted to reassure North Koreans of his commitment to national defense at a time when he is focusing more on the economy.
“Announcing his inspection of the new submarine is also to build internal solidarity, to dispel people’s concerns about national security, reassure them, and boost military morale,” he said.
Submarine development
Kim has declared a moratorium on testing ICBM’s and nuclear weapons while engaging in denuclearization talks with the United States and South Korea.
The North’s submarine report comes amid another delay in dialogue between the United States and North Korea after Kim and US President Donald Trump agreed at a meeting at the Panmunjom Korean border on June 30 to working-level nuclear talks.
Trump said such talks could come in the following two to three weeks. His national security adviser, John Bolton, arrives in South Korea on Tuesday to meet security officials.
A summit between Trump and Kim, in Vietnam in February, broke down after they failed to narrow differences between a US demand for North Korea’s denuclearization and a North Korean demand for sanctions relief.
In April, Kim said he would wait until the end of the year for the United States to be more flexible.
North Korea maintains one of the world’s largest submarine fleets, but many vessels are aging and there are doubts over how many are operational, according to the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI).
Most of North Korea’s fleet consists of small coastal submarines, but in recent years it has made rapid progress in the SLBM program, NTI said in a report released late last year.
In 2016, after a few years of development, North Korea successfully test-fired a ballistic missile from a submarine, while pursuing an intercontinental ballistic missile program (ICBM).
During the submarine inspection Kim was accompanied by Kim Jong Sik, an official who played a major role in North Korea’s missile program.
Another official on the tour was Jang Chang Ha, president of the Academy of the National Defense Science, which the US Treasury has said is in charge of the secretive country’s research and development of its advanced weapons systems, “including missiles and probably nuclear weapons.”
H.I. Sutton, a naval analyst who studies submarines, said judging by the initial photos the hull could be based on old Romeo Class submarines, which were originally acquired from China in the 1970s before North Korea began producing them domestically.
North Korea is believed to have about 20 Romeo submarines in its fleet, the newest of which was built in the mid 1990s, according to NTI.
Sutton told Reuters that the North Koreans appeared to have raised the deck on a Romeo-type design, possibly even modifying an existing Romeo to make a submarine larger than previous indigenous designs.
“I’d bet that this is indeed a missile submarine,” he said.
US-based monitoring group 38 North said in June 2018 that North Korea appeared to be continuing submarine construction at its Sinpo Shipyard of possibly another Sinpo-class ballistic missile submarine, based on commercial satellite imagery.
“This, to my eye, is the submarine that the US intelligence community has been calling the Sinpo-C, a successor to North Korea’s only known ballistic missile submarine,” Panda said.