The head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, stated on April 28 that the renowned human rights activist Natalya Estemirova had not helped to protect people. “I defend human rights here in the republic,” he said, adding “She did not help us.” Kadyrov spoke via a TV linkup as he was testifying in the libel suit he brought against the head of the Memorial human rights organization, Oleg Orlov. Orlov had stated following the brazen killing of Memorial’s most active member in Chechnya, Natalya Estemirova, on July 15, 2009, that Kadyrov is accused of being responsible for her death. One year later, Kadyrov retaliated by filing a libel suit (Interfax, April 28).
Oleg Orlov pointed to contradictions in Ramzan Kadyrov’s testimony. He noted that Kadyrov had admitted for the first time that he had quarreled with Estemirova. On March 31, 2008, Kadyrov met Estemirova and reportedly threatened her for criticizing the Chechen authorities’ insistence that women wear headscarves. He also removed the rights activist from the position of head of the Grozny public chamber. Her appointment to this position had apparently been designed as a means of co-opting this fierce critic of the flagrant human rights abuses in the republic. Orlov said that in blaming Kadyrov for Estemirova’s death, he had meant political rather than criminal responsibility. Under Russian libel law, the head of Memorial could be sentenced to three years imprisonment if convicted (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, May 6).
Estemirova was involved in independent investigations of crimes connected to torture, disappearances and extralegal murders. For the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website alone, she gave over 30 interviews on these issues during the period from 2003 until her death. Estemirova was the primary source of information for another renowned Russian journalist who worked on Chechnya, Anna Politkovskaya, who was killed in Moscow in 2006. According to Orlov, Kadyrov in court once again tried to belittle Estemirova’s role as a human rights defender while grudgingly admitting her virtuous personal qualities. However, shortly after Estemirova was killed and the Russian public largely assumed that Kadyrov was behind the murder, Kadyrov defended himself in a peculiar way. “If Kadyrov is guilty, if Kadyrov’s people are guilty, let them prove it,” he said, adding “Why would Kadyrov kill a woman that nobody needed? She never had honor, dignity, conscience; still, I appointed her as the chairperson of the council” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, August 9, 2009).
Russian investigators have found it very difficult to prove Kadyrov’s involvement in the murder or to solve the crime in any way. Estemirova was kidnapped in Grozny in broad daylight and within hours found dead in neighboring Ingushetia. Given Kadyrov’s nearly total control over Grozny, police roadblocks that preclude unimpeded travel, his dislike for rights activists and propensity to use violence, there sheds little doubt that he knows more about Estemirova’s murder than he admits. One month after the murder, the investigators complained that witnesses were afraid to talk to them. Estemirova’s colleagues said they were convinced that only law enforcement agents could have killed her. On the very day of her murder, the rights activist had an appointment with prosecutors who had opened an investigation based on her investigation of a kidnapping (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, August 21, 2009).
On September 28, 2010, the head of the Russian investigative committee, Aleksandr Bastrykin, announced that the investigators solved the murder of Estemirova, positively identifying her killer. Previously the investigators had tried to put the blame on a slain militant, Alkhazur Bashaev, but backed away from that version because of its obvious inconsistencies and persistent oversight by human rights activists. It appeared as if the government was trying to come up with any more or less plausible explanation for Estemirova’s murder except for the real one, which was thought to be politically damaging (https://www.kasparov.ru, September 28, 2010).
Since Estimirova was killed, the Memorial human rights center’s activities in Chechnya have never fully recovered. Its activities were suspended for months for security reasons, but even more importantly the remaining civil activists have felt so unprotected that doing their job as usual would have been little more than suicidal. In fact, two human rights activists were killed shortly after Estemirova. On August 10, 2009, Zarema Sadulaeva and Alik Dzhabrailov were taken from their office building by undefined law enforcement agents and their bodies were discovered with multiple gunshots in the trunk of their own car on the next day. Moscow Helsinki Group chairwoman Ludmilla Alekseyeva blamed the so-called power vertical in Russia for their deaths, saying it allowed even lower level security service officers and state bureaucrats to use violence against their personal enemies (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, August 14, 2009).
Kadyrov’s counterclaim against Memorial is apparently designed to curb the rights activists’ work in Chechnya. To some extent that aim has been achieved: in comparison to the other unstable republics of the North Caucasus, news from Chechnya often lack details and come with a considerable time lag, and all the sources cited are normally anonymous. The impression that Chechnya has become a quieter place in comparison to the other volatile North Caucasian republics derives not only from the actual spread of violence to other areas and comparative improvement of the situation in Chechnya, but also from the severe lack of access that independent journalists have to Chechnya (Ekho Moskvy Radio, May 9).
While it is striking how easily Kadyrov keeps the head of Memorial bogged down in a trial in Moscow, it would be a mistake to think that Kadyrov rules the Russian judicial system. The leeway Kadyrov has enjoyed was granted by Moscow and sanctified by Vladimir Putin himself. This essentially means that Moscow approves and probably even oversees some of Kadyrov’s most important moves, thereby shielding itself from international criticism while achieving all of its goals of ruthlessly subjugating the Chechen people.