FIFA 'concerned' by arrest in Chechnya of rights activist

Dmitry ZAKS
FIFA expressed concern over the arrest of a human rights campaigner who said Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov would exploit the presence of Egypt's World Cup team in Grozny

FIFA said Wednesday they were "deeply concerned" about the detention in Russia of a rights campaigner that drew international condemnation ahead of the World Cup.

Oyub Titiyev was arrested in January on what campaigners believe are trumped up drug charges in the North Caucasus republic of Chechnya.

Titiyev headed the local Grozny office of the award-winning Russian rights organisation Memorial.

The predominantly Muslim republic has turned into a hornets nest of human rights abuses since strongman Ramzan Kadyrov's rise to power in 2007.

Grozny was also selected as the base camp of World Cup qualifier Egypt.

"FIFA values the important work done by human rights defenders such as Mr. Titiyev," the world football governing body said in a statement released to AFP.

"Even though we have no indication that the detention of Mr. Titiyev is linked to FIFA's own operations or the 2018 FIFA World Cup, FIFA is deeply concerned about the situation of Mr. Titiyev."

FIFA added that it was of "paramount importance that Mr. Titiyev is granted a fair trial in accordance with international standards."

The statement was issued after Memorial publicised a letter about Titiyev and Egypt it had sent to FIFA boss Gianni Infantino last month.

It was co-signed by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International along with 11 other global rights groups.

"FIFA can make a difference and has a responsibility to do so," said the letter.

"We call upon FIFA to engage with the Russian authorities on the human rights crisis in Chechnya, in particular on the attack against Titiyev and Memorial."

FIFA said they had responded to the Memorial letter but did not indicate whether they had raised Chechnya and Titiyev's case with any Russian officials.

The letter from Memorial said it was concerned "Kadyrov will seek to take advantage of the use of Grozny as a training camp location to boost his credibility and prestige."

The decision by Egypt to be based in Grozny during the June 14 to July 15 football extravaganza was approved by FIFA a few weeks after Titiyev's arrest.

Memorial is the last rights organisation to retain a visible presence Chechnya while remaining critical of Kadyrov.

Its offices in Chechnya and the neighbouring Muslim republic of Ingushetia were also torched in the days following Titiyev's arrest.

Memorial activists, and others who worked in the region, say these events are part of a decade-long battle waged by Kadyrov against rights groups.

Such organisations have significantly scaled down their presence in Chechnya since Titiyev's predecessor Natalia Estemirova was kidnapped and murdered in 2009.

The United States placed Kadyrov on a blacklist of "gross violators of human rights in Russia" in December.

Kadyrov has brushed aside such criticism aside.

"As far as fundamental human rights are concerned, the situation in Chechnya is significantly better than the one in the US," Russia's RT news network quoted Kadyrov as saying last month.