Russia’s leading human rights organisation, Memorial, suffers an arson attack on its Ingushetia office just one week after the arrest of its Chechnya director.

In the early morning hours of 17 January, masked arsonists destroyed the Ingushetia office of Russia’s leading human rights organisation, Memorial. The Ingushetia office opened in 2000 as people fled Chechnya to escape the war. It is the home to those documenting abuses during and after the war in Chechnya and has assisted international observers, such as Human Rights Watch, in interviewing countless victims of torture and grieving relatives of people forcibly disappeared or extra-judicially executed, in earlier years by Russian military and security officials, and then by Moscow-sponsored Chechen authorities.

Footage from a security camera outside the office showed that at 3:35 a.m. on 17 January, a car stopped by the two-story building and two men in face masks got out, carrying what looked like a plastic canister. One of them put up a ladder to the office window and started climbing up. After they were no longer visible on camera, they apparently broke the window to enter the premises, doused the room with a flammable liquid, and set it on fire. The camera recorded them climbing down, getting into their car and driving off.  A police investigation is ongoing.

There is a strong indication that the attack is related to the arrest of Memorial’s Chechnya director, Oyub Titiev. Titiev  on 9 January. Titiev has led Memorial’s work in Chechnya since 2009, after the kidnapping and murder of his colleague Natalia Estemirova. His arrest follows years of threats and smear campaigns by Chechnya’s authorities against Memorial and other human rights groups. Kadyrov and other Chechen public officials routinely vilify human rights defenders as “puppets of the West” and “enemies of Russia” bent on destabilizing Chechnya. Some activists also suffered attacks and harassment by local security officials or pro-government thugs.

One of Titiev’s friends told Memorial that he saw Titiev standing by his car on a local road near the Khumyk river bridge, surrounded by five or six police officers. The same witness said that when he later went to the Kurchaloi police department to look for Titiev, he saw his friend’s car parked outside.

A lawyer sent by Memorial went to the police station in the early afternoon, but police officials did not acknowledge Titiev was in custody and did not let him in. In the early evening, Chechnya’s deputy interior minister informed Russia’s federal ombudsperson, in response to her inquiry, that Kurchaloi police had detained Titiev. The lawyer was then admitted to the station.

The police told the lawyer they had allegedly found 180 grams of a marijuana-like substance in a bag in Titiev’s car and that Titiev was under investigation for possession of an illegal drug. Titiev denied the allegations and insisted the bag had been planted by police. If convicted, Titiev faces a maximum 10-year prison sentence. The human rights advisor to Russia’s president, Mikhail Fedotov told the press, that Titiev’s case may constitute a fabrication and the investigation authorities should look into the issue.

Titiev’s lawyer told Russian media this week that Chechen authorities had threatened to arrest the human rights activist’s relatives if he did not confess to the charges.

His arrest is widely condemned by international organisations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Front Line Defenders, FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, and International Partnership for Human Rights. The US state department and the Council of Europe have both called on the Chechen authorities to release Titiev.

BHRC continues to monitor the situation and will provide updates as they become available.