One year since Natalya Estemirova, a prominent Chechen human rights activist and renowned journalist, was kidnapped and shot, her murder remains unsolved, while Chechnya has increasingly become a no-go zone for independent journalists and human rights NGO’s.
At a press conference held in Moscow on July 8, many of her colleagues concluded that the official investigation of her murder in 2009 was manifestly biased. Estemirova actively researched cases of torture, extralegal killings, kidnappings and other forms of intimidation by Chechen government forces led by Ramzan Kadyrov. However, officials in charge of the investigation refused to examine the most plausible perpetrators of the crime, and instead, offered dubious explanations including one that implicated Alkhazur Bashaev, a Chechen insurgent leader along with unknown accomplices in the killing of Natalya Estemirova. According to investigators, her murder might have been retaliation for her reporting on the Chechen militant. Bashaev was later killed by government forces in November 2009 (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, July 8).
Natalya Estemirova, a member of the human rights organization, Memorial, since 2000 was kidnapped in Grozny near her apartment on July 15, 2009 and found dead several hours later in the neighboring region of Ingushetia. Estemirova was part of a core group of activists that regularly reported on rampant human rights abuses in Chechnya. Soon after counterterrorism operations were halted in April 2009, she reported on an abrupt surge in the human rights violations in the republic. This criticism came at a time when both Kadyrov and Moscow hailed the end of special counterterrorism operations as a tremendous sign of progress for the war-torn republic (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, July 9, 2009).
On July 12, the Novaya Gazeta newspaper where Natasha Estemirova published her prolific reports, revealed a photocopy of the Russian investigative committee’s document dated March 31 that implicated the insurgent, Alkhazur Bashaev, and unnamed accomplices as Estemirova’s killers. However, when Novaya Gazeta requested an interview with the chief investigator, the request was denied on the grounds that it would hinder the police’s attempts to arrest the perpetrators of the crime (www.novayagazeta.ru, July 12).
Estemirova researched several cases of extralegal murders and kidnappings committed, according to preliminary information, by Kurchaloy district policemen in Chechnya. On July 10, 2009, a day after her revealing interview about the rise of violence in Chechnya for the Caucasian Knot website, the head of Memorial in Chechnya along with Estemirova met Chechnya’s ombudsman Nurdi Nukhazhiev. In front of local TV cameras Nukhazhiev condemned Memorial for “denigrating the situation in the republic.” Because Estemirova resisted her abductors, the investigative committee managed to recover some DNA material from her presumed killers. However, despite a relative abundance of witnesses, the DNA samples, and a thick network of police checkpoints in Chechnya, as well as the international community’s attention brought to this high profile case, there has been surprisingly little progress in determining the truth. Elena Milashina, a colleague and personal friend of Natalya Estemirova, has kept a close eye on the investigation process, and has alleged that despite the investigators interests in solving the crime, a higher authority was preventing them from doing so (novayagazeta.ru, July 12).
Published on June 24, the White House’s fact sheet on the US-Russia “reset” in relations specifically mentioned public condemnation of Natalya Estemirova’s murder as evidence that the US had not shied away from criticizing human rights abuses in Russia (www.whitehouse.gov, June 24). The US Department of State’s report on human rights in Russia also mentioned Estemirova’s murder as one of the significant abuses that was not given a proper investigation (www.state.gov, March 11).
The sense of impunity among Chechnya’s criminals was so high, that less than a month after Natasha Estemirova’s murder, Zarema Sadulaeva and Alik Dzhabrailov, a married couple working for a local Chechen NGO were brazenly killed in Grozny on August 11, 2009. This murder also never received a conclusive investigation.
The conditions for Memorial’s operations in Chechnya have markedly deteriorated over the past year. On July 3, while talking to the Chechen state TV station Grozny, Ramzan Kadyrov stated that people who worked with the human rights organization were “the enemies of people, the enemies of the law, the enemies of the state.” According to Memorial, “in modern-day Chechnya, the president of the Chechen Republic’s public statement is a direct and obvious threat” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, July 9). The rights organization is considering suspending its activities in Chechnya where it has 28 staffers (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, July 9).
Soon after Kadyrov’s scandalous remarks about the rights activists were revealed, he was quick to deny his statements. As a local TV station broadcast the original interview in the Chechen language, the ruler of Chechnya probably did not expect anybody would bother to record and translate what he had said, so he preferred to backtrack on his offensive observations. The head of Memorial, Oleg Orlov expressed his bewilderment at Ramzan Kadyrov’s changing attitudes and offered to have talks (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, July 12).
Concurrently, Ramzan Kadyrov is pressing ahead with libel charges against Oleg Orlov in a Moscow court. Soon after Natalya Estemirova’s murder, Orlov stated Kadyrov was responsible for her death, an accusation that Kadyrov denied. Orlov clarified further that he considered Kadyrov responsible not for the specific deaths, but rather for creating the climate of impunity for human rights violators and killers of the rights activists.
Many Russian commentators bemoan Ramzan Kadyrov’s hijacking of the Russian state authority in Chechnya and his de facto independence from Moscow. Many of them overlook the fact that Kadyrov is a convenient disguise that allows the Russian leadership to shrug off the rampant human rights violations in the republic, as if they had no responsibility for what is going on in Chechnya.