Another Human Rights Activist in Chechnya Murdered

Natalya Estemirova, a Chechen human rights activist was kidnapped and murdered today.  According to the New York Times, Natalya, who worked for the Russian Human rights group, Memorial, in recent years had “focused on kidnappings that she believed had been carried out under the authority of the Chechen president, Ramzan A. Kadyrov”.  She had fled the country for a time following threats at a personal meeting with President Kadyrov for publicly criticizing his new law requiring women to wear head scarves.

An employee with Memorial’s Moscow office, Andrei Mironov, said several men pushed Ms. Estemirova into a white car as she left for work in the Chechen capital of Grozny about 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. Witnesses said that she yelled out that she was being kidnapped. Her body was found in the afternoon about 50 miles away, a few hundred yards off a highway in Ingushetia, according to a statement by the prosecutor general’s investigative wing. The authorities said her purse, with her passport and other documents, was found nearby.

Tatyana Kasatkina, deputy director of Memorial, believes President Kadyrov is behind Natalya’s murder.  President Kadyrov claims he will “ ‘spare no expense’ to find her killers” and that her murder was “aimed to divert law enforcement attention from courterterrorism operations”.

This is all too common in Chechnya, as the Times notes:

Brazen attacks on journalists and human rights workers have continued, and no killer has yet been brought to justice, even in celebrated cases, notably that of Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian investigative journalist, who also worked to uncover abuses in Chechnya before she was shot to death in October 2006.

Our local Amnesty International group featured a film on the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, Letter to Anna, at our Seattle Human Rights Film Festival in February. Below is the trailer:

According to the New York Times, Natalya Estemirova “had collaborated with Ms. Politkovskaya and Stanislav Markelov, a young lawyer who often represented the victims in Ms. Politkovskaya’s investigations. Mr. Markelov was killed in January as he left a news conference in Moscow. “

Memorial has documented 50 kidnappings in Chechnya since January, said Usam Baisayev, a colleague of Ms. Estemirova’s. At least four of the victims have been found dead.

Mr. Baisayev said that separatist fighters were to blame for some of the kidnappings, but that he believed that government-backed agents of the police and the armed forces were responsible for most of them.

Human Rights Watch, who awarded Natalia Estemirova their Human Rights Defender Award in 2007, has posted the video they used to introduce her work during the award ceremony to YouTube as a tribute today:

In their press release on their website Human Rights Watch calls for justice for Natalia Estemirova:

“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.”

According to Human Rights Watch:

Chechnya has experienced an upsurge in violence in recent weeks, with several cases of human rights abuses, including extrajudicial executions, punitive house burnings, abductions and arbitrary detentions. Estemirova was investigating several of these cases jointly with Human Rights Watch.

Amnesty International also condemned Natalia Estemirova’s murder in a statement today:

Natalia Estemirova’s murder is a consequence of the impunity that has been allowed to persist by the Russian and Chechen authorities,” said Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

“Human rights violations in Russia, and especially in the North Caucasus, can no longer be ignored. And those who stand up for human rights need protection.”

“The terrible tragedy of the killing of Natalia Estemirova is a crime that should be denounced by the authorities and every effort must be made to bring those responsible to justice. It is yet another attempt to try to gag civil society in Russia and highlights the instability in the region.”

“Natalia Estemirova was a most courageous and inspiring woman who never tired of defending the human rights of others. She was a truly exceptional person and a friend to many of us,” said Khan.

See Amnesty International’s recent (June 30, 2009) report Russian Federation: Rule Without Law: Human Rights Violations in the North Caucasus for more human rights information on Chechnya:

*Note: The New York Times used the spelling of Natalya, with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International using Natalia, so I went with whichever organization I was quoting at the moment.