Russian human rights activist Natalia Estemirova murdered in Chechnya

Another human rights campaigner has been silenced in time-honoured Russian fashion as Natalia Estemirova was abducted and murdered in Chechnya yesterday. Four men seized the 50-year-old Estemirova as she left for work in the capital Grozny. She shouted “I’m being kidnapped” before the men dragged her into a waiting vehicle. Her body was found later that day dumped on a main road near the village of Gazi-Yurt in the neighbouring federal republic of Ingushetia. She was shot twice in the head and chest.

Estemirova was an expert on abuses in Chechnya where the long separatist war has morphed into a brutal counter-insurgency campaign. She documented hundreds of cases of torture carried out by Chechen security forces. In recent years, she focused on kidnappings that she believed were carried out under the authority of the Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov. The 32-year-old Kadyrov inherited Chechnya on the death of his father and runs the state as a personal fiefdom with the backing of the Kremlin.

Estemirova has had several run-ins with Kadyrov. In March 2008, after Estemirova criticised a law requiring Chechen women to wear head scarves, Kadyrov summoned her to his office and threatened her. Estemirova was so frightened she went abroad for several months however she eventually felt compelled to return. Estemirova’s human rights group employers Memorial blamed Kadyrov for her murder. Chairman Oleg Orlov put a statement on the Memorial’s website where he said Ramzan had already threatened and insulted her and considered her a personal enemy. “I know, I am sure of it, who is guilty for the murder of Natalia,” Orlov said. “His name is Ramzan Kadyrov.”

Kadyrov was also implicated in the murder of Estemirova’s close friend, the journalist and writer Anna Politkovskaya. Politkovskaya was an implacable critic of Russia’s policy in Chechnya and was shot dead outside her Moscow apartment in 2006. When asked whether he was responsible for that death, Kadyrov’s response was “I don’t kill women”.

No one has been charged for Politkovskaya’s murder and anyone who has tried to seek justice in the matter has been gunned down. Her lawyer Stanislav Markelov was shot dead in Moscow in January this year. A young investigative journalist named Anastasia Barburova was also killed when she tried to apprehend Markelov’s murderer. In a chilling postscript to the double murder, a party of Russian nationalists brought champagne to the murder scene the following day to celebrate the “elimination” of their enemies.

Russia continues to be one of the most dangerous places in the world for investigative campaigners, particularly journalists. In 2008 two died in Russia’s troubled southern republics (Dagestan and Ingushetia). The Kremlin has been of little help in solving the murders. Prosecutor-General Yuri Chaika blamed Politkovskaya’s death on people “trying to destabilise Russia from abroad”. The administration’s biggest enemy, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta (co-founded by Mikhail Gorbachev) has been worst affected with four journalists murdered in eight years. The Reporters sans Frontieres Russia report for 2008 found independent newspapers shut down and journalists were imprisoned for attending opposition rallies. In a frightening reminder of Soviet practices, two reporters were forcibly sent to psychiatric hospitals for criticising local authorities.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has piously claimed to be “outraged” by the latest murder in Chechnya and has ordered an investigation. Given Russian leaders have made similar unfulfilled promises in the past, there is little reason to believe this will lead to anything substantial. It is extremely likely the killers are either acting under the orders of the Russian Government or at the very least, have the tacit approval of Putin to remove unwanted critics of the administration. Russia remains a place where political murders are committed with impunity.

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