NEW YORK—Recent attacks against the Russian human rights group Memorial in Chechnya and Ingushetia and the arrest of its head-of-office in Chechnya are a clear attack on independent human rights advocates and an attempt to intimidate activists, PEN America said today.

Memorial is one of Russia’s oldest and most established domestic human rights organizations, and the only major Russian human rights organization with a presence in Chechnya.

On January 9, authorities arrested Oyub Titiev, the head of Memorial’s work in Chechnya. Titiev has been charged with possession of six ounces of cannabis, charges that human rights advocates believe to be politically motivated. The charges carry a maximum sentence of ten years imprisonment. On January 17, a group of masked arsonists set fire to Memorial’s offices in Ingushetia, the Russian region neighboring Chechnya. On January 22, the car of one of Memorial’s drivers was torched, and text messages were sent to a Memorial mobile phone saying “Shut down! Next time we’ll burn your office, with you inside. The car is just a warning.”

This spate of attacks on Memorial comes around the time that Chechnya’s head of government, Ramzan Kadyrov, declared that he considered Memorial to be “enemies of the people” and that he would not allow them to operate in Chechnya. Kadyrov, a Kremlin-backed governor of the restive province, was sanctioned by the US Department of the Treasury this December for alleged human rights abuses. As a result of the closure, Kadyrov’s Instagram account was closed, an event for which, members of Memorial argue, he holds Memorial responsible.  

“Memorial serves a vital role in uncovering stories of human rights abuses in Chechnya, and throughout Russia. These latest attacks against their members can only be understood as an attempt to silence the organization and to stop its crucial work,” said Summer Lopez, PEN America Senior Director of Free Expression Programs. “President Kadyrov’s threats and the attacks on Memorial’s offices and property help underscore the context behind Titiev’s arrest. It is impossible to conclude anything other than that his arrest is a politically motivated attempt by Chechen authorities to silence a human rights activist. These charges against Titiev should be immediately dropped and he should be released from custody.”

In 2009, a senior member of Memorial’s Chechnya team, Natalia Estemirova, was abducted and killed. No one has been charged for her murder. After another member of Memorial, co-founder Oleg Orlov, stated that he considered Kadyrov responsible for Estemirova’s death, Kadyrov brought civil and criminal charges of defamation against him. PEN America has documented a deteriorating atmosphere for free expression and social activism in Russia, detailed in the 2016 report Discourse in Danger: Attacks on Free Expression in Putin’s Russia

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world.  Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

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Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Coordinator: agasparian@pen.org, 646-981-0685