Vaclav Havel Prize goes to jailed Russian activist

The Council of Europe has honored Oyub Titiev with its prestigious annual human rights award. The head of the Chechnya branch of rights group Memorial has been in prison since January on drugs charges.

The sixth annual Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize was awarded to Chechen activist Oyub Titiev on Monday. The prize was handed out in absentia by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), as Titiev has been imprisoned since January.

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The 61-year-old is the head of the Memorial Human Rights Center in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. Memorial is the last influential human rights organization still active in the troubled North Caucasus republic. It has offices throughout the Russian Federation, and works to document the historical wrongs of the Soviet Union, as well as to monitor rights abuses in modern Russia and former Soviet states.

Natalia Estemirova, Titiev's predecessor, was murdered in 2009. Since then, PACE wrote on its website, he "has made a widely-recognized contribution to the defense of human rights in the region by reporting on abuses by the local authorities."

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Politically motivated arrest

In a message from Titiev read out by the chairman of Memorial's board, Aleksandr Cherkasov, the activist said he was convinced that "this work to protect human rights in Chechnya and Russia must continue and international solidarity can help us."

Titiev was arrested for drug possession on January 9 after police said they found marijuana in his car during a routine check. In the statement, he denied the allegation and accused the officer of planting the drugs in his car. The trial against him began in July. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison.

In an interview with DW, Cherkasov described the court case as a farce. "We see dozens of witnesses, repeating rehearsed lines one after the other," he said. "You can see how uncomfortable they are, or they fervently invent their own lies — that is what is supposed to serve as truth in this trial." 

Other activists and opposition politicians from within Russia, as well as international NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have criticized Titiev's detention as politically motivated. In a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin in May, dozens of Russian journalists and human rights campaigners demanded that the trial take place in a different region. But that plea has gone unanswered.

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'Keep up the good work'

After the death of former Memorial head Estemirova, Titiev was particularly careful. He began collecting and systematizing reports of kidnappings, torture, illegal arrests and killings in Chechnya, but didn't publish them under his own name. This way journalists and activists in Moscow could use his material, do their own research and provide help to those being persecuted.  

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"We are fully aware of the difficulties that Mr. Titiev and his colleagues face. This prize is a recognition of the work he and Memorial are doing," PACE President Liliane Maury Pasquier said.

"It is also a message to all those who work in this region to affirm the principles of the rule of law and human rights. Keep up the good work, you can count on our support," she added.

The award, including €60,000 ($69,000) in prize money, was accepted by a representative. Last year it went to jailed Turkish judicial official Murat Arslan.

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