Halting Start For Chechen Rights Activist's Trial Amid Dispute Over Venue

The politically charged drug-possession trial of a prominent human rights activist in Chechnya has gotten off to a halting start as jailed defendant Oyub Titiyev's lawyer did not show up on its opening day.

Attorney Ilya Novikov stayed away from the hearing on July 18 because he thought Titiyev's motion to move the trial out of Chechnya was still under consideration, the defense team said.

Shortly after the hearing started, the Shali district court adjourned the trial of Titiyev, the head of the Moscow-based right group Memorial's embattled office in Chechnya, until July 19.

Titiyev has been in jail since he was arrested in January after police stopped him and said they found marijuana in his car.

Titiyev and colleagues at Memorial have called the accusation absurd and accused the police of planting the drugs.

The case is widely seen by Russian and international rights activists as punishment for his work exposing rights abuses in Chechnya.

Rights groups also contend that it is part of a campaign by the authorities -- including the regional government of Kremlin-backed Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov -- to push the organization out of the North Caucasus.

Titiyev and his colleagues have sought to move the trial to Moscow or another region outside Chechnya, where they say he cannot get a fair trial because senior officials in the region have essentially pronounced him guilty.

The top court in Chechnya rejected the request for a change of venue, but Memorial said on July 18 that Titiyev's lawyers had asked the Russian Supreme Court to overrule it and move the trial elsewhere.

Titiyev, 60, could be sentenced to 10 years in prison if convicted, and acquittals are very rare in Russian courts. Rights groups and Western governments have called on Russia to release him and end what they call his politically motivated prosecution.

Human Rights Watch has called the charges "bogus" and said the case "seems to be part of an effort by Chechen authorities to shut Memorial out of the region."

With reporting by Interfax and Ekho Moskvy