On August 10, members of NGO’s, rights activists, journalists and friends of Zarema Sadullaeva and Alik Dzhabrailov gathered for a small ceremony of remembrance in Grozny. Unidentified law enforcement members led Sadullaeva and Dzhabrailov out of their office in Grozny on August 10, 2009. The next day they were found dead with multiple gunshot wounds and other injuries in their trunk of their own car in the Zavodsky district of Grozny. The murder of the couple took place several weeks after a prominent Chechen rights activist and journalist, Natalya Estemirova, was kidnapped in Grozny and found shot dead in Ingushetia several hours later (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, August 10).
On August 11, 2009, Chechnya’s ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov, vowed to take personal control over solving this crime. That same day he claimed Alik Dzhabrailov was a former insurgent and that his death may have been caused by a blood feud –a practice still widespread in Chechnya (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, August 11, 2009). Even if there were truth to Kadyrov’s claim, according to Russian laws, a blood feud is not an excuse to kill someone. In addition, both Ramzan Kadyrov and his late father, Akhmad Kadyrov, were members of the same insurgency that fought the Russians in the past, as were a good percentage of Kadyrov’s forces that now make up his powerbase. So Kadyrov’s explanations for Dzhabrailov’s death sounded very offhand at best.
Sadullaeva and Dzhabrailov ran Let’s Save the Generation, a local Chechen NGO mainly involved in working to rehabilitate Chechen children and youths affected by the long and brutal wars between Russia and Chechnya. Unlike Estemirova, Sadullaeva and Dzhabrailov did not have a history of strained relations with Kadyrov. In a chilling statement, Ramzan Kadyrov made this distinction clear: “This woman [Zarema Sadullaeva] only helped people –children, disabled. While Estemirova was engaged in human rights activism, tricked the public, often wrote lies, the killing of this woman [Zarema Sadullaeva] I cannot explain by anything” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, August 11, 2009).
Some sources in Chechnya reported that Sadullaeva and Dzhabrailov were seen at the Leninsky district police station in Grozny after they were abducted from their office, but the police denied any involvement (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, August 12, 2009). Later, investigators obliquely confirmed that the couple had been apprehended by law enforcement agents. According to Viktor Ledenev, the head of the Investigative Committee in Chechnya, Sadullaeva and Dzhabrailov did not resist the intruders, but voluntarily went with the people who came to their office and then likely killed them. Confirming a statement made earlier by Kadyrov, Ledenev emphasized that the criminals did not intend to harm Sadullaeva, but rather targeted Dzhabrailov. So Sadullaeva became collateral damage, as she did not want to leave her husband (www.gazeta.ru, December 1, 2009). Thus, the investigators largely repeated the version of events that Kadyrov voiced the same day Sadullaeva and Dzhabrailov were found dead.
However, anonymous sources close to Sadullaeva stated on August 13, 2009 that she had multiple injuries on her body, her arm was broken in two places and there were other signs a struggle had taken place. The sources in Chechnya said that even if someone was to take vengeance on Dzhabrailov, they would not have killed his wife, especially as she reportedly was pregnant (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, August 13).
The series of killings of rights activists in Chechnya in the summer 2009 led to profound changes in the republic’s climate. The Memorial human rights center suspended its operations in Chechnya for several months, and then resumed them, but regularly faced threats and pressure coming from Kadyrov and his administration. As fear reached its climax in the republic, the quality of reporting about human rights abuses declined, with some local activists dropping out from the human rights defenders’ ranks. On February 11, 2010, Kheda Saratova, a well-known Chechen stringer and journalist, left the joint mobile group of the rights activists, voicing her concerns about its work methods (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, February 11).
On December 10, 2009, French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, awarded Sadullaeva’s NGO, Let’s Save the Generation, a prestigious award. However, the basic needs for the safety of rights activists and independent journalists, unfortunately, remained unaddressed as the government in Moscow unequivocally chose to endorse Ramzan Kadyrov’s regime, which many observers believe is responsible for attacks on the human rights activists and most of the human rights violations in Chechnya.
Referring to the murders of rights activists in Chechnya, President Dmitry Medvedev, said during a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on August 14, 2009: “The powers that are discontent with Russia’s [successful] development, with the help of foreign sources, triggered terrorism mechanisms, utilizing new terrorism technologies” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, August 14, 2009). Vladimir Ustinov, Moscow’s envoy to the Southern Federal District, of which Chechnya was a part in 2009, dismissed criticism of Kadyrov, saying that he was on “the democratic track” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, August 19, 2009).
If the government was behind the killing of the rights activists and, as it appears, is sweeping investigations under the rug, these actions did not solve the security problems either in Chechnya or in the wider North Caucasus. Several suicide bomber attacks have taken place in Grozny alone since then. In fact, the killings and threats against the rights activists made all sides in the ongoing conflict more exasperated and more willing to use nearly all means to inflict maximum damage to each other. The government appears to be dangerously out of touch with the real situation on the ground, which is likely to contribute to further escalation of the violence in the North Caucasus.