Killings of Russia's Human-Rights Activists Continue

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Sergey Uzakov / AFP / Getty Images

Russian human-rights activist Natalya Estemirova sits beside lawyer Kirill Koroteyev during a press conference in Grozny, Chechnya, on July 26, 2007

The fight for free speech and human rights in Russia suffered another devastating blow on July 15, when the body of Chechnya's most outspoken human-rights activist was found dumped by the side of a road. Natalya Estemirova, 50, had been killed execution-style, shot in the head and chest, just hours after being kidnapped from outside her home in Grozny, the capital of the republic situated in Russia's troubled North Caucasus region. The murder has sparked international outrage and prompted calls for a closer look at the atrocities that have been committed in the North Caucasus, and in Chechnya especially, since the start of Russia's Chechen wars in 1994.

Estemirova, a researcher and activist for the highly respected Russian human-rights-defense organization Memorial, was abducted early Wednesday morning as she was walking to catch a bus to work. According to Memorial head Oleg Orlov, who spoke with neighbors who had witnessed the kidnapping, she was hustled into a white car by four unknown men. Eight hours later, police found her body in the violence-plagued neighboring republic of Ingushetia.

"She was fearless, and boldly defended the truth and protected the interests of people," Shamkhan Akbulatov, head of Memorial in Chechnya, told Russian news agency Itar-Tass. "She was killed because of her professional work." Prosecutors investigating the case agree, saying the murder was linked either to her work or a personal enemy.

Indeed, Estemirova's determined efforts over the past decade to uncover and document extrajudicial killings, torture, disappearances and kidnappings in Chechnya had made her many enemies, including Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, the republic's Kremlin-backed President. She had also become a thorn in the side of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who as President presided over the Second Chechen War, which began in 1999 and ended in 2002.

Her most recent research included contributions to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report that accused the Chechen government of burning more than two dozen homes in punitive attacks against the families of suspected rebels. She also exposed the recent summary public execution of a young suspected separatist by a security officer in Chechnya. On the day of her murder, a 600-page report that she had helped research was released by Russian human-rights groups. The report exhaustively documents atrocities committed by all sides during the two Chechen wars and concludes that there is sufficient evidence to demand that Putin, among other officials, be held to account for war crimes carried out while he was in power.

"In Chechnya, the government creates an atmosphere of fear and mistrust," Estemirova said in 2007, as she accepted HRW's Human Rights Defender Award. "Those who witness abuse keep silent, for if they speak, they can soon become a victim. Can you imagine living each day wondering who might turn you in to the government for saying the wrong thing?"

Estemirova's murder marks the second assassination of a Russian human-rights figure this year, after the shooting of lawyer Stanislav Markelov in January, and the seventh killing in 10 months of opponents of Kadyrov, including two in broad daylight in central Moscow. "It seems to be open season on anyone trying to highlight the appalling human-rights abuses in Chechnya," said Kenneth Roth, HRW's head, in a statement. "It's high time the Russian government acted to stop these killings and prosecute those responsible."

While human-rights activists in Russia have been pointing the finger at Kadyrov — "I know, I am sure of it, who is guilty for the murder of Natalya ... His name is Ramzan Kadyrov," said Orlov, Memorial's chairman, in a statement on the organization's website — the Interfax news agency reports that hours after the murder, Kadyrov released a statement calling those who carried out the killing "monstrous" and saying that they "deserve no support and must be punished as the cruelest of criminals."

The White House has also condemned the killing, calling it "especially shocking" that it happened a week after President Barack Obama met with activists, including those from Memorial, in Moscow. "Such a heinous crime sends a chilling signal to Russian civil society and the international community, and illustrates the tragic deterioration of security and the rule of law in the North Caucasus over the last several months," said White House National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer in a statement.

And in Moscow, Russian President Dimitri Medvedev responded swiftly to news of Estemirova's murder, in sharp contrast to the three-day silence from then President Putin that followed the killing of crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a friend and colleague of Estemirova's. Medvedev expressed "indignation" and said the government would "take all necessary measures" to solve the crime.

Yet many in the human-rights community doubt the will of the government to solve the murder of one so committed to unearthing crimes committed by the Kremlin. For Medvedev, Estemirova's killing represents a twofold problem. It brings into ever-increasing doubt the claims he made when elected last year that he would restore the rule of law in Russia, and it highlights the rising level of violence in the North Caucasus, where the Kremlin has backed Kadyrov in a mostly successful effort to quell fighting in Chechnya. Now the methods of Kadyrov, and those of the Kremlin, have been called into question, and the chance for justice in the Caucasus looks increasingly slim.