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On 12 September, a court in the Russian Republic of Chechnya convicted 14 men of ‘participation in an illegal armed formation’ and ‘illegal purchase and possession of weapons’. The trial was held in secret, with relatives claiming they were promised the men would receive lighter sentences if they did not contact rights groups or the media.
The Shali City Court, in session in Chechnya’s Supreme Court, sentenced the 14 men — aged from 19 to 30 — to 9.5 to 10.5 years in prison. All of the men were from the village of Tsotsi-Yurt, 35 km east of Grozny.
The websites the Shali City Court and the Supreme Court do not list the trial in their records. The trial only became public after videos from outside the court’s building circulated in social media. One of the videos shows people gathered outside the court breaking down in tears as armoured vehicles leave the premises.
A relative of one of the men told OC Media that investigators promised the relatives they would receive lighter sentences if they did not make the case public, which is why the relatives didn’t seek help from human rights defenders or journalists prior to the verdict.
‘The authorities did not need publicity surrounding the case, especially because of the trial of Oyub Titiyev [who heads the Chechen branch of Russian rights group Memorial] they were already exposed in a bad light. Therefore, they simply deceived the relatives of these guys, saying that if they don’t make a fuss, the guys will get only conditional release or very symbolic sentences’, they told OC Media.
Chechen state TV channel Grozny TV reported on 16 September that the men were detained in early 2017. According to Yelena Milashina, a journalist from Novaya Gazeta, the men were among over 200 people detained in January 2017, at least 27 of which were extrajudicially killed.
On 13 September, a call to a rally in support of the convicted men and their relatives was circulated in Chechen social networks. The rally was supposed to be held on 17 September, which is marked locally as Chechen Women’s Day.
A day before the planned rally, Grozny TV ran a story calling the planned rally a ‘provocation’, claiming that ‘unknown people’ provoked relatives gathered in front of the court and that those spreading dissent were trying to ‘destroy peace and stability in Chechnya’. In the report, several relatives of the convicted men acknowledged their relatives’ guilt on camera and renounced the planned rally. One of them, Turpal-Ali Abuyev — the brother of the youngest of those convicted — stated that ‘they were lucky they were convicted’. The rally did not take place.
A former history teacher from Grozny, Abdula, told OC Media that Chechen authorities applied collective pressure in order to instil fear and keep society under control.
For people defying the authorities, he said that ‘if you’re trying to go all the way […] pressure is exerted not only on you, but on the whole family, from constant threats to deprivation of all benefits payments from the state’.
‘They can plant something [illegal] on you if you are particularly persistent in seeking truth and justice’, he said.