Famous Russian human rights activist and Aurora Community member Oyub Titiev used to lead the local office of the Memorial Human Rights Center, a national non-governmental organization, in Grozny, Chechnya. Such activity is considered very dangerous in the region: the murder of Titiev's colleague Natalia Estemirova, killed in 2009, has not been solved to this day.
The organization's office in Grozny had been attacked repeatedly before closing down, and in 2019, Oyub Titiev himself was sentenced to four years in prison for drug possession. The activist and leading human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, consider the case politically motivated and related to his professional activities. Despite the risks, Oyub Titiev continues his work after his parole, having moved to Moscow. We spoke to him about the situation in Russia, his new projects, and the crucial component of civil society.
– What are you currently working on?
I have a lot of different projects. One program that keeps me very busy is a project that is being implemented on the platform of the Civic Assistance Committee (Russian regional public charity organization helping refugees and displaced persons – Aurora). The project provides assistance to convicts from six North Caucasus republics who are mainly serving their sentences in other Russian regions. We are talking about the convicts from the Chechen Republic, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia and North Ossetia – the republics that are part of the North Caucasus region.
Why focus on these regions? Because there are very few appeals from prisons and penal colonies in the Caucasian republics, so most of the complaints and appeals come from the northern regions of Russia. These are the areas where situation is the toughest: Yakutsk, Vladimir, Mordovia, and some other regions. We provide legal assistance to convicts there; we assign lawyers to their cases. We try to help them as much as we can.
As natives of the Caucasian republics, a big problem for us is the fact that we’re often serving the sentence very far away from our region. Most convicts serve their sentences far away from their homes, from their families, from their relatives, and because of this they are separated from their families. Their families cannot communicate with their convicted relatives.
There’s also work to be done on our project dedicated to human rights defense in the zones of armed conflict. As before, I am continuing this work, too. There are a number of other [projects] that I don't want to talk about. There is nothing particularly secret there, but it is better not to mention them.
– How would you describe the current human rights situation in Russia?
All the time, every year, our State Duma churns out these laws on a daily basis, the laws that are directed against the activities of human rights defenders and designed to create as many obstacles as possible to their work. If the state could manage it on its own, there would be no need for public human rights organizations at all.
We have public defenders and ombudsmen, and in every region, there are various human rights organizations subordinate to the state. If they worked, there would be no need for our activity. But every year, the situation gets worse and worse. This has been the case for all the 20 years I've been working in this field.
– What gives you strength to not give up, despite this gloomy trend?
This, of course, has become the norm of my life. Not because I’m some special kind of person – I'm an ordinary person. I would have gladly given it all up, if it weren’t for this travesty of justice, for such blatant lawlessness around us. I even got into human rights defense by chance, because of that cursed war and because of the numerous violations that had been happening in front of our eyes. Purely by chance, I met human rights activists from Moscow, my current colleagues, and got into this field. Now, you could say that I’m attached to this work for the rest of my life.
– As a professional human rights activist, what advice can you give to people who want to change the situation?
The most important thing is for people to be active and not to despair, for them to try to find solutions to their problems and to protect their rights. That would be the crucial component. Passivity, this attitude of “no, no one will help me; it's useless to fight” – that's the most dangerous thing.
If your rights are violated, you have to seek [justice], not accept the violation or leave it to deal with later. Change will not happen by itself; you have to fight for it. This, in my opinion, is the most important thing. And then, if you need to ask for support from somewhere, human rights defenders will help you.
It depends, of course, on the region. Here in the Caucasus, for example, one doesn’t believe that a person can change anything, that a person can prove anything. There are people who just happen to be helpless and passive – that’s the way they are. But there are also active people who fight. These people achieve [results]. The main thing is to keep fighting.
Photo: Yelena Afonina\TASS via Getty Images.