Human Rights Activist Estemirova Murdered in Chechnya

Natalya Estemirova, from the Russian human rights organization, the Memorial Human Rights Center, was kidnapped today while leaving her home in Grozny, the Chechen capital, and later found dead. She reportedly shouted to bystanders “This is a kidnapping!” No one was able to intervene, as four armed men grabbed her and put her into a white automobile.

Estemirova, who had worked with assassinated investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya and was a winner of the Anna Politkovskaya Award, was a vocal critic of the Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, who is accused of widespread human rights abuses, political killings and war crimes. Russian authorities, from the Putin era and into the Medvedev era, have refused to fully investigate allegations against Kadyrov, preferring to cast him as a patriotic hardliner unwilling to let Chechnya secede from the Russian Federation.

Kidnapped while leaving her home in Grozny, Chechnya, in the morning, her body was found at 17:20 local time (13:20 GMT) in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, near the city of Nazran, according to Russia’s ITAR-TASS news agency. Madina Khadziyeva, a spokeswoman for the regional interior ministry told the press the victim had two wounds to the head and that “it was clear she had been murdered in the morning”.

Natalya Estemirova, a close friend and investigative colleague of Anna Politkovskaya, was one of the most prominent human rights campaigners still active in Chechnya. Politkovskaya was murdered on then President Vladimir Putin’s birthday, leading to widespread speculation it was meant to send a sign of allegiance to Putin, who backs Kadyrov’s hardline regime in Chechnya and had been openly critical of reporting by the crusading journalist.

Numerous critics both inside and outside of Russia have alleged that a shadowy network of political figures aligned with Pres. Putin—whose administration employed more active and former spies than any Russian government on record—was conspiring to eliminate critics and consolidate the Putin-centered power bloc that installed Kadyrov in Chechnya. Putin was initially dismissive of the significance of Politkovskaya’s murder, a reaction that shocked many, including political allies.

Now, various groups are calling for a full accounting of Russian political assassinations throughout the post-Soviet era, many of which have never been fully prosecuted or resolved.Human Rights Watch today “urged the Russian government to launch a full, independent, and transparent investigation into Estemirova’s murder”. The HRW statement reads:

“The Russian authorities should take every possible step to bring Natalia Estemirova’s killers to justice,” said Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch. “It seems to be open season on anyone trying to highlight the appalling human rights abuses in Chechnya. It’s high time the Russian government acted to stop these killings and prosecute those responsible.”

Is Russia getting away with murder in Chechnya? There has been triumphalist recasting of the entire Chechen conflict by Russian authorities in Moscow, who now say the resistance is dead and Chechnya is firmly aligned with the Russian Federation. But throughout the process of “resolution”, the assassination of activists, lawyers, and dissidents, has been a persistent stain on Russia’s Chechnya policy. The pattern is so persistent and visible that Vladimir Putin has alleged it is part of a conspiracy by his political enemies to destabilize the Russian Federation.

Some allege the underlying security strategy for Chechnya was to use overwhelming, indiscriminate and brutal force against anyone who would impede outright military reconquest by the Russian military. Putin often justified military and paramilitary actions critics called war crimes as an aggressive counter-terrorism effort to secure Chechnya. According to the Huffington Post:

A report was released on the same day as Estemirova’s killing, which calls for Russian officials, including Prime Minister Putin, to be held accountable for crimes while they have been in office.

Today, President Dmitry Medvedev expressed outrage at the killing and pledged a thorough prosecution. A spokeswoman told the press the president views as evident the possible connection between her murder and her professional work. Medvedev will now be under pressure to demonstrate that his administration really is serious about prosecuting such political killings, though specific pronouncements on the process of the investigation or the security officials who will lead it have not been given.

But in powerfully ill-fated timing, Pres. Medvedev was in Sochi today, visiting with political and military leaders from Ingushetia, and praising the “success” of security operations to crush a separatist movement he termed “terrorist”. According to Radio Free Europe:

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said after meeting near Sochi with acting Ingushetian President Rashid Gaysanov that security forces have had “success” in their counterterrorism operation against Islamic militants in Ingushetia, RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service reports. Medvedev did not specify what he meant by success or where it was achieved.

The wave of violence includes a recent assassination attempt on the life of Ingushetian president Yunus-Bek Yevkurov. He survived the attack, but had to turn over power temporarily to Gaysanov. Medevedev has long been seen as part of the Putin bloc of power and an heir to Putin’s security policies. Russian military interventions in the Caucasus region have raised fears—and allegations—of the kind of abuses seen in the Chechen conflict.

There is concern Russian authorities have sought to further harden their security stance after making nice with US president Barack Obama, who while visiting Russia met with human rights campaigners and said the US was committed to seeing the spread of “universal values”, commentary many in Russia saw as open criticism of the Putin-Medvedev power bloc and its much maligned security policies. The Guardian newspaper, for instance, is reporting:

The timing of her murder follows Barack Obama’s first visit to Moscow last week as US president. Obama met with Russian human rights activists and set out the US’s commitment to “universal values”. The Kremlin responded with hardline pronouncements, with the president, Dmitry Medvedev, visiting the breakaway Georgian republic of South Ossetia on Monday. The trip appeared to be a direct rebuff to Obama who had said that both Georgia and Ukraine should be free to choose their own leaders.

Critics and dissidents have intensified their complaints of government interference with media and with rights campaigners and non-governmental investigations over the last decade. Questioning whether Estemirova’s murder is more evidence of “impunity” for political murders in Russia, the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) today praised Estemirova for her work with the group:

Reporters Without Borders is appalled and saddened by today’s murder of former journalist Natalia Estemirova, the Russian human rights NGO Memorial’s representative in Chechnya. …

Estemirova helped Reporters Without Borders conduct a fact-finding visit to Russia’s three Caucasian republics – Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan – in March. The information and analyses she shared with Reporters Without Borders reinforced our conviction that the Caucasus is on the brink of chaos and that human rights activists like her are bravely filling the gap left by a dwindling independent press.

RSF also demanded of Russia that: “The authorities must publicly condemn this murder and demonstrate a real determination to combat impunity.” RSF recently sent an open letter to Pres. Obama, urging him to call on Russian officials, during his meetings with Pres. Medvedev, PM Putin and others, to call to account all those responsible for violence against the press. The letter noted “According to our research, at least 20 journalists have been killed in connection with their work since Vladimir Putin became president in March 2000.”

This month alone, Estemirova was actively denouncing alleged involvement of Chechen security forces in a number of murders, including the home-invasion murder of Madina Iunusova, a young widow whose husband had been killed in a “police action” in Chechnya. In another case, Rizvan Albekov and his son Aziz were abducted by police, and subsequently gunned down with automatic weapons in what was intended to be an “exemplary punishment”.

According to the Spanish newspaper El País, the kidnappers put their prisoners on display in front of  a group of young men, ordered Albekov to confess his guilt in aiding Chechen rebels, then opened fire when he indicated he had not. They allegedly then threatened to do the same to anyone who had aided the rebels.

Estemirova had accused Kadyrov and his cronies of running sinister brothels filled with sex slaves, kept prisoner by threat of violence, and forced to service the soldiers who serve Kadyrov’s interests. She allegedly told a fellow journalist that Kadyrov had sought to strike fear into her in a private interview in 2008, adding that the authoritarian Chechen president seemed to her to be a “genuine idiot” and that his regime existed simply to serve the whims of his power.

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Originally published July 15, 2009, at CafeSentido.com

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