Rights Activists Warn That Probe of Natalya Estemirova’s Murder Is On the Wrong Track

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 12 Issue: 15

On July 15 Russian investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin stated that the militant group under the command of Islam Uspakhadzhiev (aka the Shalazhi Jamaat, after the village of Shalazhi in Chechnya’s Urus Martan district) was behind the murder two years ago of the well-known Chechen human rights activist Natalya Estemirova. According to the investigators, Alkhazur Bashaev and other members of the armed insurgent group killed Estemirova for her publications about the recruitment of militants by the Bashaev brothers and an attack on a Moscow businessman they carried out and “to discredit the government authorities of the Chechen republic” (www.sledcom.ru, July 15).

Following Estemirova’s murder, many of her colleagues expressed the opinion that Chechnya’s ruler Ramzan Kadyrov was responsible for her death. The head of the human rights center Memorial, Oleg Orlov, rebuked Kadyrov and was sued for libel by the Chechen ruler. Kadyrov revealed his attitude toward Estemirova at Orlov’s trial, calling her a human rights activist “without honor, conscience or dignity” (https://www.bbc.co.uk/russian/russia/2011/04/110428_kadyrov_orlov_libel.shtml).

On July 15, 2009, Natalya Estemirova, one of the most well-known journalists and rights activists in Chechnya, was kidnapped in Grozny and hours later found dead in neighboring Ingushetia. Estemirova’s colleagues, who carried out their own independent investigation of the crime and even had a DNA testing done in Switzerland, contradicted the official account. Their groundbreaking report, published by Novaya Gazeta on July 14 of this year, said that independent investigators had interviewed Alkhazur Bashaev’s brother Anzor Bashaev, who left Chechnya prior to Estemirova’s death in 2009 and currently resides in France. They managed to get a DNA sample from Anzor Bashaev on a voluntary basis. The official investigators claimed they found the silencer gun and car used to kidnap and murder Estemirova at the home of the suspected killer in Shalazhi village. However, the DNA tests performed by a specialist at the request of the unofficial, independent investigators found that the available DNA samples from the car did not match those taken from Anzor Bashaev, the suspect’s brother. The official investigation asserted that Alkhazor Bashaev died in a Russian missile strike on a truck loaded with rebels on November 13, 2009. Since the missile strike left only body parts, Alkhazor Bashaev was identified by his DNA. The independent investigators, however, did not confirm that the DNA claimed to have belonged to Alkhazor Bashaev, was sufficiently close to the DNA of his brother, Anzor Bashaev (www.novayagazeta.ru, July 14).

As the second anniversary of the prominent Chechen human rights activist’s death drew closer, rights activists and organizations intensified their pressure on the Russian authorities to make progress in the investigation. At a meeting with Russian human rights organizations on July 5, the activists officially handed over their report on Estemirova’s death to President Dmitry Medvedev and stated that the official investigation was on the wrong track (www.kremlin.ru, July 5).  On July 14, Memorial, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Novaya Gazeta paper held a press conference in Moscow, where they unveiled their investigative report. They called on President Medvedev to take this case under his personal control (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, July 14). On the same day, July 14, Human Rights Watch, Civil Rights Defenders, Front Line Defenders, Amnesty International and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee addressed the Russian government in a joint statement asking it to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation of Estemirova’s death (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, July 14).

In their investigative report, the rights activists expressed their suspicion that the Federal Security Service (FSB), instead of helping the official investigation, tried to cover up the crime. Several DNA samples were “used up” and are no longer available. At least two members of the Shalazhi Jamaat, Rizvan Bashaev and Yunus Asmerzaev, were proven to have connections to the FSB. Both were able to leave the insurgency in the summer of 2009 and reside peacefully in Chechnya. Given the fact that they were under the command of Islam Uspakhadzhiev, one of the closest associates of Doku Umarov, this outcome was very unusual. The report alleged “either the Shalazhi Jamaat was under a significant degree of [FSB] control or the members that left it provided the security services with some important service.” The report called on the government to examine other possible versions of the murder of Natalya Estemirova and not to focus exclusively on the militants (www.novayagazeta.ru, July 14). It is believed, in particular, that Estemirova’s report on an extralegal, public murder of a rebel sympathizer in the village of Akhkinchu-Borzoi on July 7, 2009 that was specifically designed to terrorize people caused her death. The event was so manifestly egregious that it had a delegitimizing effect on Kadyrov’s rule in the eyes of the Russian public and the international community and therefore its coverage infuriated the Chechen government (https://svpressa.ru/politic/article/11389/).

In the meantime, the official investigation seems to be intent precisely on presenting the slain insurgents as Estemirova’s killers. “Some statements in the media about his [Alkhazur Bashaev’s] innocence are not founded on real facts, but are just subjective opinions of people that do not have the necessary competence, information and access to the case materials,” said the Russian Investigative Committee (www.sledcom.ru, July 15).

On July 15, Chechen rights activists held a ceremony in Grozny in remembrance of their colleague’s death. Several hours after their departure, somebody tore down a photo of Natalya Estemirova’s that had the inscription “We remember.” Taisa Isaeva told the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) that “they fear her even after her death” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, July 15).

Bringing Natalya Estemirova’s murderers to justice is deeply intertwined not only with the past and future of troubled Chechnya. It is also linked to the future development of the North Caucasus and of the Russian state. If persistent human rights abuses and impunity of the law enforcement agencies remain the status quo, this will have further devastating effects on Moscow’s policies in the North Caucasus and, in the end, on developments in the rest of Russia.