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     Volume 8 Issue 80 | July 31, 2009 |

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Slain for Daring to Report

Ms. Estemirova

The murder of Natalya Estemirova, an investigator into the brutality of Chechnya's Kremlin-backed regime, has the grisly signature of a long string of murder with impunity in Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Ms. Estemirova was kidnapped by gunmen Wednesday in her hometown of Grozny and summarily executed. Two close colleagues the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov were gunned down in recent years as they bravely documented torture, executions and other depradations by security forces of the Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov. It's an outrage that the killings and a dozen others of journalists and human rights workers have gone unpunished.

Ms. Estemirova, a tireless muckraker for the Russian human rights group Memorial, told of being personally threatened last year by President Kadyrov. But she was unrelenting. Her recent reports were of a blatant police execution of an untried citizen and the regime's burning of the houses of two dozen suspected anti-Kadyrov insurgents. On the day Ms. Estemirova was murdered, her detailed research underpinned a report calling for Russian officials, including Mr. Putin, to be held accountable for human rights crimes.

Natalya Estemirova, 50, had become a central source of information on abuses in Chechnya, where separatist war has given way to a brutal counterinsurgency campaign. In recent years, Ms. Estemirova focused on kidnappings that she believed had been carried out under the authority of the Chechen president, Ramzan A. Kadyrov, who has enjoyed unwavering public support from the Kremlin.

Her work met with threats and denunciations from Moscow-backed Chechen authorities. In March 2008, after Ms. Estemirova criticized a new law requiring women in Chechnya to wear head scarves, Mr. Kadyrov summoned her to a personal meeting and threatened her, an experience so frightening that she went abroad for several months, said Tatyana Kasatkina, deputy director of the Russian human rights group Memorial, where Ms. Estemirova had worked since 1999. Friends tried to convince Ms. Estemirova to stay away, but she felt compelled to return.

An employee with Memorial's Moscow office, Andrei Mironov, said several men pushed Ms. Estemirova into a white car as she left for work in the Chechen capital of Grozny about 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. Witnesses said that she yelled out that she was being kidnapped. Her body was found in the afternoon about 50 miles away, a few hundred yards off a highway in Ingushetia, according to a statement by the prosecutor general's investigative wing. The authorities said her purse, with her passport and other documents, was found nearby.

Ms. Kasatkina said she believed that Mr. Kadyrov was behind the killing.

People, holding a poster reading Who is next, cry during a mourning ceremony for slaim rights activist Natalya Estemirova in Grozny, Chechnya, Thursday, July 16, 2009. Weeping mourners escorted the body of Natalya Estemirova through Chechnya's capital on Thursday, honoring the activist whose brazen kidnapping and execution-style killing shocked Russia's beleaguered human rights community and prompted international outrage. (AP Photo/Musa Sadulayev)

“There have been threats for a while, and now Kadyrov hopes to lower the curtain,” Ms. Kasatkina said. “With Natasha's murder, Kadyrov drew the line and sent a message to human rights groups: 'I won't tolerate you.' ”

Mr. Kadyrov released a statement on Wednesday night saying he would “spare no expense” to find her killers. He said he believed that the murder aimed to divert law enforcement attention from counterterrorism operations and was carried out by “forces that are incapable of coming to terms with the fact that in the Chechen Republic, military actions have ended and peace has arrived,” according to the Ria Novosti news agency.

The killing presents a double challenge to the Russian president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, who took office last year promising to restore the rule of law. Brazen attacks on journalists and human rights workers have continued, and no killer has yet been brought to justice, even in celebrated cases, notably that of Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian investigative journalist, who also worked to uncover abuses in Chechnya before she was shot to death in October 2006. The following year, Ms. Estemirova won an award named for Ms. Politkovskaya.

He also faces a rising tide of violence in the north Caucasus, where the Kremlin has relied on Mr. Kadyrov to stamp out separatist violence. Mr. Kadyrov has virtually eliminated the insurgency, but advocates like Ms. Estemirova have said his regime uses brutal tactics, among them abduction and torture.

Thomas Hammarberg, human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, said her killing “begs for a very determined and effective response” from Russian authorities.

“If this case is not clarified, it will have a detrimental effect on human rights work in Russia,” he said. “It is imperative that this is given the highest priority by the prosecutor, and that the investigation starts immediately.”

Mr. Medvedev released a statement through his press secretary condemning the murder, and saying that “unfortunately, it is apparent that this premeditated murder may be related to Natalya Estemirova's human rights activities.”

Ms. Estemirova stood out, in the small circle of human rights activists focusing on Chechnya, because she chose to remain in her hometown of Grozny, living in a two-room apartment that was never fully repaired after the war. Her home beset by cutoffs of water and electricity became a sort of guest house for visiting human rights workers and journalists, said Shakhman A. Akhbulatov, who worked with her at Memorial.

“She was a very strict, direct, open person,” Mr. Akhbulatov said. “She didn't know any compromises. If she felt she was right, she stood on her position. That was her character.”

Especially in recent years, when the threats became graver and more frequent, she was torn because of one concern: her daughter, Lana, now 15, whom she was raising alone, he said.

“She put everything into her daughter,” Mr. Akhbulatov said, who spoke by telephone from Grozny, where people could be heard crying in the background. “On the other hand, she could not quit this work. She was burning up with this work.”

Grozny had become increasingly forbidding for Ms. Estemirova. Three months ago, she was interrogated for hours at the Chechnya Interior Ministry, an experience that worried her so much that her organisation, Memorial, reported it to the Council of Europe, Mr. Hammarberg said.

“It was a case when at least she herself was feeling that she was under threat,” Mr. Hammarberg said. “She interpreted this as meaning some groups had their eyes on her.”

This month, Nurdi Nukhazhiyev, Chechnya's government-backed human rights ombudsman, railed publicly against Western and Russian human rights groups, including Memorial, calling them tools of Russia's enemies.

“There is a perception that they need an unstable and violent Chechnya like they need air,” Mr. Nukhaziyev said, in a posting on his Web site.

Ms. Estemirova's is the latest violent death within the close-knit community of activists in Chechnya. She had collaborated with Ms. Politkovskaya and Stanislav Markelov, a young lawyer who often represented the victims in Ms. Politkovskaya's investigations. Mr. Markelov was killed in January as he left a news conference in Moscow.

Officials in Moscow announced this spring an end to Russia's counterterrorism operation in Chechnya, saying stability had returned after nearly two decades of war and internecine fighting. But violence remains commonplace, with frequent shootouts between the police and a weakened, but still potent, separatist movement. Kidnappings, too, are common.

Memorial has documented 50 kidnappings in Chechnya since January, said Usam Baisayev, a colleague of Ms. Estemirova's. At least four of the victims have been found dead.

Mr. Baisayev said that separatist fighters were to blame for some of the kidnappings, but that he believed that government-backed agents of the police and the armed forces were responsible for most of them.

Ms. Estemirova described the mechanics of disappearances during an interview with the New York Times in April 2008. She was chain-smoking, with dark rings under her eyes, but also boisterous and funny, eager to get the story out. She said abductions had become a pervasive tactic as the insurgency waned and the Russian Army handed the brunt of the security work over to local militias.

“Armed people come, in uniforms, and put them in cars,” she said, describing a typical abduction. “People never understand they are the security forces. These people come back beaten, but are quiet and never speak out.

“We know people disappeared,” she said. “We know people were killed. And we know we need to look for them with a shovel.”

When he was president, Mr. Putin openly belittled the work of the slain activists. President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia conceded that the latest killing seemed rooted in Ms. Estemirova's reporting “and so the punishment for the criminals should be that much harsher.”

Mr. Medvedev should signal a true change of heart by removing Mr. Kadyrov, the former warlord who was Mr. Putin's choice for president. Last fall, Mr. Medvedev replaced another Putin ally, the governor of Ingushetia, after the murder of an opposition politician.

Eighteen years after the fall of Soviet Communism, justice is long overdue in Russia.

This article first appeared in The New York Times


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