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Russian rights group awaits verdict of its Chechnya chief

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Moscow (AFP)

Russia's top rights group on Wednesday denounced the trial of its Chechnya branch leader as a "tragic" means to obstruct his work with the court expected to deliver its verdict next week.

Oyub Titiyev, the head of the group Memorial's branch in the North Caucasus, was arrested in January 2018 on what campaigners believe are trumped up drug charges.

He has since been held in Chechnya, a republic inside Russia ruled by strongman Ramzan Kadyrov.

Speaking at a press conference in Moscow, senior Memorial member Oleg Orlov said his arrest was a "tragic link in a whole chain of other events putting pressure on Memorial" and other rights group in the North Caucasus.

He said Memorial's offices in the neighbouring Ingushetia republic had been torched following Titiyev's arrest and colleagues in Dagestan, another Caucasus republic, were attacked.

On trial since last summer, Titiyev's verdict is expected to be announced next week. He faces up to ten years in prison.

"He will be found guilty," Titiyev's lawyer Ilya Novikov told the same press conference.

"We have tried to show that what has happened with Oyub is a gross falsification," said lawyer Maria Dubrovina.

According to the lawyers, the case against Titiyev is related to the fact that he investigated Chechnya's secretive prisons.

Drug charges have been used repeatedly in the past to silence critical journalists and rights workers in the region.

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

The group speaks out about human rights violations in Russia and has accused the Chechen leader of overseeing a "totalitarian" regime that uses kidnappings and torture.

Titiyev's predecessor as the regional leader of Memorial, Natalya Estemirova, was kidnapped and killed in 2009. The rights group said the killers were acting on the orders of local authorities.

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