Natalya Estemirova, one of the leading activists of the human rights centre ‘Memorial' in the Caucasus, has been murdered. Her body was found in neighbouring Ingushetia. The Ingush Ministry of Internal Affairs gave out precise information: on 15 July at 17.20 Moscow time Estemirova's body was found in a wood near the village of Gazi-Yurt in the Nazran district. She had died of shot wounds.
Natalya Estemirova was the first to be awarded the Anna Politkovskaya Prize in 2007 and had been awarded the Swedish Parliament Prize ‘A right to existence' in 2004. In 2005 she received the Robert Schumann Medal from the European Parliament.
The information that she had been kidnapped had appeared earlier that same day. We were told by ‘Memorial' that she came out of her apartment block in Grozny at about 8.30, was seized by several people in plain clothes, bundled into a white Zhiguli car and driven off in an unknown direction. Estemirova shouted that she was being kidnapped. Our informant told us that before the kidnapping she had been followed by a woman - probably leading the kidnappers to their target.
The day she was kidnapped and murdered Natalya Estemirova was to have met the relatives of Chechens killed by the security services. She had also planned a series of meetings and a visit to the Stavropol krai with officials from the Chechen Internal Ministry.
'Throughout the second Chechen War Natalya Estemirova publicised crimes committed in the republic, even when the perpetrators were Russian soldiers. This continued after the war as well', said Alexander Cherkasov, a board member of the International Society 'Memorial'. He also said that at some point Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov had personally expressed his displeasure with Natalya's work.
The 'Caucasian Knot' website recalls that at the end of March 2008 the President of Chechnya personally removed Estemirova from her position as Chair of the Grozny Community Council for Rights and Freedoms of Citizens. Kadyrov was outraged by Estemirova's statement on REN-TV about women being obliged to wear the head scarf in Chechnya. Natalya Estemirova was protesting at government intervention in people's private life.
Kadyrov demanded that 'Memorial' should appoint to the Council someone who agreed with Chechen Republic government policy in respect of the wearing of head scarves. 'Memorial' responded that it had no intention of appointing anyone else, as, while respecting Chechen traditions, it was in complete agreement with Estemirova's position.
Federal and local government reaction to Estemirova's murder was swift. 'The President has been informed of the murder of Natalya Estemirova. He expressed his outrage and ordered the head of the Investigative Committee at the Office of the Prosecutor General, Alexander Bastrykin, to do all he could to clear up the case,' Natalya Timakova, President Medvedev's Press Secretary said to the press on Wednesday. 'The President sends his condolences to Estemirova's family and friends....unfortunately it is clear that this premeditated murder might be linked with Natalya Estemirova's activities in the field of human rights'. The Press Secretary stressed that 'the criminals would get a very tough sentence'.
The President of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov also spoke about the murder. He declared that he would personally assume responsibility for the investigation. 'The organisers and executors of this horrific crime represent a greater threat to society than terrorists and Wahhabists who have spilt the innocent blood of thousands. I shall personally direct the investigation of this crime and the best people will be put on the case, sparing nothing to bring the investigations to a conclusion', said Kadyrov on the evening of 15 July.
He also said that as well as the official investigation of Estemirova's killing, he intended to instigate an unofficial investigation in keeping with Chechen traditions.
Human rights activists have no faith in a conclusive investigation. Alexander Cherkasov recalls that the only cse of kidnapping and murder that was brought to court was the so-called 'Kadet' Sergei Lapin.
'This happened mainly as a result of the efforts of three people: Anna Politkovskaya, who publicised the whole affair, Stanislav Markelov, who represented the injured parties and conducted the case in such a way that there could be no appeal, that everything was correctly and properly done, and Natalya Estremirova. They were friends who had worked together a great deal. Now Natasha, the last of them, has been killed,' said Cherkasov.
'I am under no illusion that the Russian government will take effective measures to investigate this crime' he continued. 'The last thing Natasha did was a highly sensitive subject. On 7 July in the village of Akhkinchy-Borzoi a man was publicly shot. At the end of the 90s it was public executions in the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria that proved conclusively this regime had no right to exist. And now we receive information about a public execution. The leadership of Chechnya reacted very nervously to this and there were indirect complaints about 'Memorial'. Now Natasha has been kidnapped and murdered'.
Oleg Orlov, the chairman of the human rights centre 'Memorial' made an even stronger statement. He said that 'there is state terror in Russia. We know about murders both inside Chechnya and elsewhere. Those who are killed have tried to tell the truth and criticise the government. Ramzan Kadyrov has made it impossible for human rights activists to work in Chechnya. Natasha Estemirova's killers wanted to put a stop to the flow of honest information from Chechnya. Perhaps they have succeeded.'