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Natalya Estemirova – murdered, not forgotten

Three years ago the indomitable Natalya Estemirova was murdered in Chechnya. Her killers remain at large, and arbitrary executions of oppositional figures have remained a tool of power across the North Caucasus. Here, Tatyana Lokshina, Alexander Cherkasov and Igor Kalyapin, three of Russia’s leading human rights defenders review a deteriorating situation, and how address it

Three years after Natalya Estemirova’s murder

Tatyana Lokshina (Human Rigths Watch). Three years have passed <since Natalya  Estemirova’s death> . We believe she was killed by office-holders and that the regime itself was involved in her murder. [...]

Vladimir Kara-Murza (presenter). Did those evil-doers achieve their goal when they shut down a source of reliable information from Chechnya?

Alexander Cherkasov (Memorial Center). There’s no question about her role as a source of information. But we have lost an outstanding, radiant individual. It is tough without her, impossible, everything has changed.

On the other hand, if you excuse such a comment, after Natasha’s death Igor Kalyapin and rights defenders who until then restricted their investigations of police torture to their own regions, came together to form this Joint Mobile Group. This team operates round the clock to deal with the most dangerous cases – the cases that were dealt with before by Natalya.

'Three years have passed <since Natalya  Estemirova’s death> . We believe she was killed by office-holders and that the regime itself was involved in her murder. [...]'

Tanya Lokshina

Kara-Murza. Will Natalya Estemirova’s cause continue?

Igor Kalyapin (Committee against Torture). The situation in Chechnya after Natasha’s death changed drastically. This was not just because we had lost a very effective and professional rights defender. Her murder was a deliberate warning. Before, many people used to appeal to Memorial and visit its offices in Grozny. After her death people realised that it was hopeless to appeal to rights defenders who could not even defend their own leader...

Vladimir Kara-Murza. Since Natalya Estemirova’s death the investigation into her killing has made no substantial progress. On the contrary, it has been followed by a series of other grave crimes. [...]

Alexander Cherkasov. Zarema Sadulayeva and Alik Djabrailov were abducted and murdered in Chechnya on 10 August 2009. Zarema Gaisanova was detained on 31 October during a special operation, directed by Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov himself, and subsequently disappeared. (She worked for the Danish Council for Refugees in Chechnya.) Ingush opposition figure Maksharip Aushev was shot dead in Kabardino-Balkaria on 24 October 2009. The last high-profile killing of a public figure in the Caucasus was that of Hadjimurad Kamalov, publisher of the Chernovik newspaper, who was shot dead in Makhachkaka (Dagestan). None of the investigations into these crimes have made any progress. Those responsible have been neither named nor arrested.

Vladimir Kara-Murza. Why is this entire series of crimes not being investigated?

Tanya Lokshina. It gives us grounds for believing that high-ranking individuals were involved in these crimes. They want to preserve their impunity. It is our impression that the authorities are not just trying to avoid investigating the murder of Natalya Estemirova. They have been making it as difficult as possible for the lawyers, rights defenders and activists who have been trying to continue the work Natalya did, by helping those whose near ones have been abducted or have themselves fallen victim to torture and extra-judicial killings.

Therefore, the obstacles faced by the flying squad of rights defenders in Chechnya are not really surprising. That group is headed by the Committee against Torture. Igor Kalyapin can describe how the group’s work is being constantly frustrated and obstructed.

Estemirova(1)

In July 2008, Natalya Estemirova was kidnapped as she left her home in Grozny, the Chechen capital. Her body was later found in the neighbouring province of Ingushetia. She had been shot twice in the head at close range.

Resistance to the investigations

Igor Kalyapin (Committee against Torture). It is not so much the human rights defenders who encounter difficulties as the official investigators who are conducting investigations into the abductions and killings of people the Chechen Republic. There are dozens of similar cases. Our legal experts are involved in several of them. We encounter the same situation in every case. The local law-enforcement agencies, above all those linked to Chechen Republic Ministry of Internal Affairs, offer fierce resistance to these investigations. [...]

One case in which I am myself representing the victim is that of Islam Umarpashayev. It has become famous because up until now he is the only person to have survived abduction. Four months after his disappearance Umarpashayev suddenly appeared again. He has provided not only us but the official investigators with a full account of his location during that period. Throughout that time, he said, he had been held in an underground cell of the riot police (OMON), handcuffed to a radiator. He is entirely innocent and has never been charged with any offence. All he did wrong was to make derogatory remarks in an internet chat about some of the ranking police officers in Chechnya who make up Ramzan Kadyrov’s entourage.

'The failure to punish those who kill journalists and rights defenders in the North Caucasus effectively indicates that such people are a legitimate target.'

Tanya Lokshina

This case has been successfully transferred to a higher level of investigation. It has been entrusted to Colonel Igor Sobol of the Investigative Committee for the North Caucasus Federal District. This is the same Sobol, who has led the investigation into Natalya Estemirova’s murder. The colonel has made a conscientious effort to gather the evidence. He has tried to carry out investigative procedures, for instance, in the area covered by the Oktyabrsky district police department in Grozny [from which Estemirova was abducted on the morning of 15 July 2009, tr.]. Although Colonel Sobol is an investigator from the Investigative Committee for the entire North Caucasus Federal District, he and his team were not allowed access to the police Force was used to make them go away.

This happened again when the investigative group tried to visit the base of the riot police (OMON). The police commander said he would open fire and the investigators would be shot dead if they came onto his territory. Not to mention the fact that Chechen police officers have not turned up for the investigative procedures or when summonsed to appear and have been exerting pressure on the witnesses. That is how the investigation – perhaps we should say “investigation”? – has proceeded for the last three years.

Tatyana Lokshina. It’s very important to add that this outrageous lawless behaviour continues to this day. The failure to punish those who kill journalists and rights defenders in the North Caucasus effectively indicates that such people are a legitimate target.

If first one person, then a second, then a third and a fourth are murdered and investigation of these homicides makes no progress for years , this can only inspire potential killers to commit fresh crimes. The murders of those of our colleagues who died over the past few years did not come as a surprise. Each of them had faced serious threats. Natalya Estemirova was personally threatened by the president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov himself. He told her that his arms were in steeped in blood, asked her questions about the members of her family, and let her know beyond any doubt that she should stop what she was doing – give up her work and keep silent. Natalya was murdered; her death has not been investigated.

In September 2009 Hadjimurad Kamalov, publisher of Chernovik, probably the most well-known independent newspaper in Dagestan, found himself on a death list, along with two dozen other activists, journalists and lawyers. Those who compiled this list, denouncing them as Wahhabis and terrorist supporters, said that they were going to kill the people they had named. The authorities knew that threats had been made but took no action to protect him.

Vladimir Kara-Murza (presenter). So extra-judicial killings and abductions remain a feature of life in the North Caucasus today?

Alexander Cherkasov. Yes, that’s true of all the republics and of Dagestan. It’s also true of Ingushetia although there the dirty work is being done not by local security men but mainly by outsiders, people from Kabardino-Balkaria and Chechnya. In Chechnya itself, however, we do not know how many people have been abducted. People are afraid to bring complaints. Even when they do, they often withdraw their statement because they have been told not to report the matter or draw up a written complaint. [...]

In Dagestan the situation is getting worse. Last year seemed rather better by comparison with 2010. The opposite is now true and special operations are being carried out during which people disappear. A major part of the active service groups of the federal Ministry of Internal Affairs, which make up the bulk of the military and police units now in Chechnya, have been moved from the military base at Khankala into Dagestan. There they are operating in much the same manner as in Chechnya. [...]

Tatyana Lokshina. The Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights continues to work in Chechnya. In fact, the commissioner personally intervened in the case of Umarpashayev. It is one of the main investigations pursued by the Joint Mobile Group of Human Rights Defenders in Chechnya. The commissioner made a personal request to those in charge of the Investigative Committee to transfer the investigation from Chechnya to the federal level. The Joint Mobile Group had long pressed for this to happen. [...]

Orlov’s case

Kara-Murza. What’s happened, by the way, about Kadyrov’s claim that he was slandered by Oleg Orlov, head of Memorial?

Alexander Cherkasov. There were two cases, to be precise. We lost the first civil case. The second trial for criminal defamation went on for a long time until, in summer 2011, the court ruled that Oleg Orlov had not defamed Mr Kadyrov, i.e. there was no conscience intention in his words of distorting anything. Orlov expressed an opinion and was entitled to do so. [...]

'The Court in Strasbourg is and will remain a way of defending people for as long as Russia remains within its legal framework.'

Alexander Cherkasov

European Court of Human Rights and Russia

Kara-Murza. Do you think the flow of complaints to the European Court of Human Rights (EHCR) will dry up, now that the present panel of judges has made the procedure more complicated?

Tatiana Lokshina. Honestly, I don’t think so. People are complaining because they cannot get justice at home, in Russia. It is truly the court of the last instance, the last hope for those who have battled to achieve something and found they were beating their heads against a wall. That’s the way it is, for instance, for relatives who have disappeared in Chechnya. How the Court’s decisions are implemented is another matter. The ECHR not only awards compensation in monetary terms but requires that states take specific measures concerning the existing legislation and its application, in order to prevent the repetition of such violations. [...]

Alexander Cherkasov. The Court in Strasbourg is and will remain a way of defending people for as long as Russia remains within its legal framework. For instance, we became acquainted with a lot of material relating to the case of Zarema Gaisanova after the ECHR obliged the Russian authorities to make them available. [...]

Estemirova(2)

In October 2007, Natalya Estemirova was awarded Anna Politkovskaya award from the Reach All Women in War campaign group. That award had been established after the killing of Anna Politkovskaya - a journalist who investigated human rights abuses in Chechnya.

Kara-Murza. What means of obtaining justice remain open to those living in the North Caucasus?

Igor Kalyapin. I can tell you how our group is trying to do this. Not one of our cases has ended successfully so I cannot say that our methods have worked. Let me repeat: there is only one case that might actually come to court. That is the case of 23-year-old Umarpashayev. This is because he survived, by a miracle. He was not shot dead on 9 May 2010, as he had been promised. ‘Sometime around 9 May we’ll dress you in battle fatigues and shoot you,’ they had said. ‘You’ll die like a man with a gun in your hand.’ Before they freed  him they made him swear that he would tell everyone that he had not been held by the riot police, but had gone to visit relatives in Dagestan.

Islam Umarpashayev broke his promise and continues to testify in court. This may well prove the only case that reaches a judgment. It will then be able to offer some model for the pursuit of justice. But as you’ve heard, this took the intervention of the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights. It took the case being transferred to the federal level, and its allocation to the most famous and effective investigator in the North Caucasus investigative department. I doubt that all the cases of abduction and murder in the Chechen Republic can be investigated in this way. At the moment I have no practical means for attaining justice to recommend. It does not exist in the Russian Federation.

Kara-Murza. Representatives from a number of human rights organisations have asked President Putin himself to oversee the investigation of Natalya Estemirova’s murder. Is this a sign of desperation?

Alexander Cherkasov. They are probably seeking to draw attention both to the killing and to President Medvedev’s decision to oversee the investigation. Since then there has been a change of president, so they are writing to ask what resources could be brought into play.

The investigation into the murder of Hadjimurad Kamalov showed that our investigative bodies have simply forgotten how to work, after spending many years protecting the security forces in the Caucasus. They missed everything. The crime scene was not properly examined. The discarded shells were picked up by a passer-by, and there was no anatomical examination of Kamalov’s body [...]

We know of about three thousand abductions in Chechnya but have only three court decisions in Russia and 135 in Strasbourg. So it is hard to find justice here.''

Alexander Cherkasov

We know of about three thousand abductions in Chechnya but have only three court decisions in Russia and 135 in Strasbourg. So it is hard to find justice here. That, in turn, strengthens the propaganda of those organising an underground opposition. If our investigators could take effective measures to deal with those who not only falsify election results but create a false impression of an anti-terrorist operation, this would give people hope of justice and mean that less people join the fighters in the forest. That’s probably the way to end violence in the North Caucasus.

Tanya Lokshina. I do not for a moment believe that our colleagues in Chechnya who signed this document really imagine that Putin will take charge of the case. They do not expect him to ensure its investigation, let alone find and punish Natalya’s killers. But it takes enormous courage to make such declarations today, if you and your family are living in Chechnya.

This is an abridged version of a discussion on Radio Liberty, broadcast on 13 July 2012 and originally published on Human Rigths in Russia website  (translated and edited by John Crowfoot).

About the authors

Tanya Lokshina is the Russia program director at Human Rights Watch.

Alexander Cherkasov, a leading expert on Russia’s turbulent north Caucasus region, chairs the ‘Memorial’ Human Rights Centre. Well known for its courageous thorough reporting from Russia’s hot spots, ‘Memorial’ has been documenting human rights abuses in Chechnya and providing assistance to victims since the start of the armed conflict in Chechnya in 1994 and extended its work to the neighbouring republics as human rights abuses spilled out to the broader north Caucasus region. 

Igor Kalyapin is Head of Committee against Torture, an interregional human rights association based in Nizhni-Novgorod


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