Natalia Estemirova: Heroic opponent of human rights abuse in Chechnya 28 Feb 1958 - 15 July 2009 Print E-mail

 
 July 17 2009

Please Scroll down to read of the Natalia Estemirova Scholarship launched by Reach all Women in WAR on the first anniversary of Natalias death, and link for donations

Russian Federation: Natalia Estemirova - A Testament to Courage

In 2003 Natalia Estemirova spoke to the 2003 Dublin Platform for human rights Defenders. In her testimony she described the incredible courage of those who struggled to document and challenge the human rights abuses being perpetrated in Chechnya. Natalia Estemirova is the latest victim of a climate of impunity in which harassment and intimidation, kidnappings and killings go unpunished. Natalia Estemirova paid for her courage with her life - her words speak for themselves.

Testimony by Natalia Estemirova to the 2003 Dublin Platform

"I would like to tell you about a woman of whose life and death, I believe, the people must know.

Her name was Zura Bitieva. She lived in a small Chechen village. During ‘95-‘96, when the Russian army occupied Chechnya, she was actively involved in anti-war protests. She was not afraid of the fatal consequences. In 1999, the Russian army again invaded Chechnya, and in February 2000 she and her son Idris, were taken into the Chernokozov prison by a Russian soldier. Conditions of this prison were appalling in their brutality. Torture, killing, assault and human degradation were all part of this institution.

Zura was a small, aged and very sick woman. But her soul and the strength of her spirit, withstood the threats and beating of her captors. She defended other inmates in prison, with this strength. Zura went on hunger strike. She was released in a very ill condition. Her friends helped her go to Turkey.

But once her health was slightly better, she went back to Chechnya, and began collecting evidence of crimes committed by the Russian soldiers and militia against the peaceful citizens of Chechnya. This evidence she submitted to UN and organizations for human rights.

In the middle of a spring night 2003, her house was broken into by camouflaged and masked men. These men were part of the Russian forces. They killed her, her son Idris, her husband and her brother. Her one year-old grandson was gagged and left in a puddle of blood. Only her other son, escaped death by hiding in time.

Half a year passed, and the crime has still not been investigated.

Exactly two years before this event, Islamic fundamentalists in conjunction with the Russian forces, mortally wounded human rights defender Viktor Popkov. Still, the killers have not been brought to justice, even though this is quite possible.

In spring this year, men in camouflage and masks kidnapped a defender Imran Ezhiev. The press raised a storm, and after a few days Imran was dropped and left on a dirt road. To this day, he does not know where he had been, as he was gagged and cuffed. But he does know that his kidnappers were part of the Russian forces. He was saved by the press outcry.

I suggest that whenever a human rights defender is suffering, we should hold massive press gatherings to free the defender and lead proper investigations into their arrests."

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 July 15 2009

Natalia Estemirova: Russian Rights Activist Kidnapped, Found Dead

MIKE ECKEL and MANSUR MIROVALEV

MOSCOW ­ A well-known Russian rights activist was found slain execution-style on Wednesday, hours after being kidnapped in Chechnya – the latest in a series of brazen murders targeting critics of the Kremlin's violent policies in the war-torn North Caucasus.

The daylight slaying of Natalya Estemirova follows the killings in recent years of reporters, lawyers and activists, and appeared to indicate that Russia remains a place where political murders are committed with impunity.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev reacted quickly to the murder – in contrast to other recent killings – expressing his condolences, and ordering the country's top investigative official "to take all necessary measures." His press spokeswoman Natalya Timakova said Estemirova's murder appeared to be related to her work.

The slaying came the same day as the release of a report she helped research that concluded there was enough evidence to demand that Russian officials, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, be called to account for crimes committed on their watch.

"She documented the most horrendous violations, mass executions," said Tatyana Lokshina, a Moscow researcher with the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

"She has done things no one else dared to do," she said.

Estemirova, a 50-year-old single mother, was reported kidnapped Wednesday morning by the prominent rights organization she worked for, Memorial. Chairman Oleg Orlov said that four men forced her into a car in the Chechen capital, Grozny, where she lived. He said witnesses heard her yell that she was being abducted.

About nine hours later, her body was found on a roadside in Ingushetia, which borders Chechnya to the west. There were two close-range bullet wounds in her head, according to Ingush Interior Ministry spokeswoman Madina Khadziyeva.

Estemirova had collected evidence of rights abuses in Chechnya since the start of the second war there in 1999. She was a key researcher for a recent Human Rights Watch report that accused Chechen authorities of burning more than two dozen houses in the past year to punish relatives of alleged rebels.

Orlov accused Chechnya's Kremlin-backed president, Ramzan Kadyrov, of being behind the murder.

"Ramzan already threatened Natalya, insulted her, considered her his personal enemy," he said. "Ramzan Kadyrov has made it impossible for rights activists to work in Chechnya."

Estemirova also worked with the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, another critic of Kremlin policies in the North Caucasus who was gunned down in her Moscow apartment building in 2006. And she aided Stanislav Markelov, a lawyer involved in Chechen rights abuse cases who was shot and killed on a Moscow street in January, along with an opposition newspaper reporter.

Wednesday's killing came a few hours after Russian rights groups presented a report saying that Putin and other top officials should be considered suspects in crimes against humanity that could be tried before an international tribunal.

The 600-page document appeared to be the first comprehensive attempt to collect and analyze accounts of atrocities by all sides in the two wars between separatists and government forces.

There was no evidence that her killing was connected to release of the report. But Markelov was killed as he left a similar news conference at the same office in Moscow, where he had spoken about his efforts to send a Russian colonel who had strangled a Chechen girl back to jail.

In Washington, National Security Council Spokesman Mike Hammer urged Russia to bring those responsible to justice.

"This brutal slaying is especially shocking coming one week after President Obama met with civil society activists in Moscow, including those from Natalya's organization," Hammer said. "Such a heinous crime sends a chilling signal to Russian civil society and the international community."

Andrei Mironov, a rights activist and former gulag prisoner, asserted that Estemirova's killing, and others in recent months, were clearly sanctioned by government officials.

"First off, they kill reporters, to cut off the front line of information. Then they kill activists. ... They are by definition enemies and they must be eliminated," he said. "This is the Russian state. This is a Russian political system that generates terror, systematic terror."

Both wars in Chechnya were marked by reports of indiscriminate military attacks on civilians – including air and rocket barrages that leveled much of the Chechen capital – summary executions of suspected rebel sympathizers and abductions of civilians by both sides.

At least 484 people were executed without a trial during the wars and another 465 killed in massacres or at checkpoints, said Wednesday's report by Memorial and other rights groups.

It comes at a time when international criticism of Russia over Chechnya has receded. Fighting there has dwindled from major offensives to small, sporadic skirmishes.

The authors of the report acknowledged that in calling for an international investigation they face an uphill battle.

Rights lawyer Karinna Moskalenko told reporters that critics have asked her: "Why do you want to lay bare these wounds?"

"We don't know when and under what circumstances, political or otherwise, an independent investigation of these crimes may be created," said Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, chairman of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society.

The report claims to find sufficient grounds to hold Russian officials to account for crimes committed under their leadership.

"Numerous detailed testimonies of these atrocities have allowed us to name some of those who should be the first to be taken to court. ... One of them, Vladimir Putin, is the head of the government de jure and the head of state de facto," the report said.

Putin was prime minister when the second Chechen war was launched in 1999. Russia's brutal strategy during his presidency was seen as one of the main factors behind his extraordinary popularity.

Many of the allegations of abuse in Chechnya have been directed against Kadyrov and his security forces.

Kadyrov has overseen massive efforts to rebuild the region and persuaded hundreds of former militants to join his feared security units. But as he has consolidated his power, many critics and political rivals have been killed – two of them in broad daylight on the streets of Moscow.

His office declined to comment on the Estemirova killing.

Although Chechnya has been comparatively quiet in recent months, violence in neighboring North Caucasus regions has spiraled. The president of Ingushetia was severely wounded in a suicide bombing last month and the top police official in Dagestan was killed by a sniper.
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Associated Press Writer Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.
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 London ~ Friday, 17 July 2009

Leading article: Killing exposes the true face of modern Russia

The Kremlin's outrage over Natalia Estemirova's murder rings hollow

Uncovering the truth is a lethal business in Russia and its republics. Another independent human rights activist, Natalia Estemirova, was assassinated this week. She was abducted from near her home in Grozny, the Chechen capital, on Wednesday. Her body was found in the neighbouring state of Ingushetia later that day; she had been shot in the head. Ms Estemirova's death adds to the growing tally of courageous activists and independent journalists who have been assassinated in Russia in recent years.

Ms Estemirova knew the risks of revealing evidence of human rights abuses in modern Russia as much as anybody. She had experienced threats on more than one occasion. But that does not make her killing any less appalling – or any less damning of the political culture that prevails in her homeland.

There was stern condemnation of the killing from the Russian authorities this week. President Dmitry Medvedev declared his "outrage" at the crime, and the Chechen President, Ramzan Kadyrov, vowed that he would lead the investigation into Ms Estemirova's death. But there were similar promises following the murder of the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot in her Moscow apartment building in 2006, and still no one has been convicted of that murder. Two Chechen men were acquitted of involvement in the crime in February after a farce of a trial. With each unsolved killing, the question grows more insistent: does there exist any genuine desire on the part of either the Russian or Chechen authorities to see the perpetrators of these crimes brought to justice?

Many powerful people in Grozny and Moscow had reason to want Ms Estemirova silenced. She had uncovered numerous human rights abuses by the Chechen authorities – cases of torture, disappearances and extra-judicial killing. She had recently completed an investigation for Human Rights Watch into the Chechen authorities' practice of burning the homes of those suspected of having links to rebel groups. She speaks of these crimes in her final article, which we publish today.

Ms Estemirova was also adept at persuading victims and witnesses to testify in court cases – a considerable skill in a region cowed by the fear of official retribution. No one seriously doubts that she was targeted because of her work in exposing government abuses.

The Kremlin likes to portray Chechnya as a success story of modern Russia – a region being rapidly rebuilt after two decades of terrible conflict. The former Russian president and now Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, declared in front of the Chechen parliament following the 2005 election that "peace has come to the republic". But this "peace" has been achieved by putting the region under the control of a brutal gangster regime. Human rights are routinely abused by the security forces, there is impunity for lawbreakers, and brave individuals such as Ms Estemirova – who tell the world what is really going on – end up dead.

The Kremlin might put on a show of concern about such high-profile killings, but it has shown no inclination to force its Chechen subordinates to change their ways. The Russian government's tight control of the national media show its essential antithesis to the kind of open, democratic society Ms Estemirova was fighting for. Her murder exposes the true face of Chechnya, and modern Russia, and it is not a pretty sight.

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 London ~ July 17, 2009

Chechen leader blamed for killing of human rights activist Natalia Estemirova

By Roger Boyes
Ms Estemirova had enemies in both Grozny and Moscow

The killing of the Russian human rights activist Natalia Estemirova drew universal condemnation yesterday, with her colleagues already blaming the controversial Chechen President for the crime.

The case is a key test of Russia’s commitment to human rights and a challenge to its relationship with the US after the two countries pressed the diplomatic reset button recently.

President Obama met members of Memorial, the organisation for which Ms Estemirova worked, when he visited Moscow last week.

The murder is also a sharp reminder that Russia’s grip on the security of the North Caucasus is still loose: there have been 50 kidnappings in Chechnya alone this year, along with killings and suicide bombings across the region stretching from Ingushetia to Dagestan.

Ms Estemirova, 50, a widow with one daughter, was found dead on Wednesday afternoon with gunshot wounds to the head and chest, hours after she was seen being bundled into a car outside her home in the Chechen capital, Grozny, shouting: “I am being taken.”

She was killed on the same day as the release of a report that she helped to compile, which concluded that there was enough evidence to demand that Russian officials, including Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister, should be called to account for crimes committed in the restive province.

“I know, I’m sure of it, who is guilty of the murder of Natalia,” Oleg Orlov, the director of Memorial, said. “His name is Ramzan Kadyrov” ­ the Chechen leader. He said that Mr Kadyrov saw Ms Estemirova as a personal enemy and that his staff had warned her to stop her investigations.

In Grozny, 100 mourners gathered to remember her outside Memorial’s office. About 50 men and women later walked in a slow procession along Prospekt Putin, a central Grozny street, as her body was taken in a minivan to a cemetery in western Chechnya. One woman at the head of the procession carried a sign that read: “Who Next?”

Ms Estemirova’s daughter, Lana, 15, said she was stunned by the murder. “I can’t imagine that Mum won’t be around any more and that I won’t be making a morning coffee for her,” she said.

“It is an outrage,” President Medvedev of Russia said yesterday during a visit to Munich. He told Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, that the Kremlin would do everything to bring the killers to justice.

Mr Medvedev will be keen to avoid a repeat of the case of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, another expert on human rights abuses in Chechnya, who was shot dead in Moscow in 2006. Her unsolved murder blackened the reputation of Mr Putin, the President at the time, who seemed indifferent to her death.

“Such a heinous crime sends a chilling signal to Russia’s civil society and the international community,” Mike Hammer, the US National Security Council spokesman, said.

Mr Medvedev has placed the investigation in the hands of the state prosecutor, Alexander Bastrykin, who will report directly to the Kremlin.

The Russians will have to act quickly to seize the initiative from Grozny. To the horror of Ms Estemirova’s colleagues, Mr Kadyrov has vowed to hunt down her killers.

“There will be an official inquiry,” he said, “and we will also settle this in the Chechen way. They must be punished as the cruellest of criminals.”

Mr Kadyrov was regarded as an enemy of Ms Estemirova. She had been gathering evidence for Memorial about an alleged campaign of arson attacks by Kadyrov-backed militiamen against his opponents. Her career was dedicated not only to publicising the lot of Mr Kadyrov’s victims but also establishing the chain of command, holding the political leadership accountable.

Analysts say there is a risk that a special unit serving Mr Kadyrov ­ who has said “I don’t kill women” ­ might find some suspects and connect them with his internal rivals from the Vostok brigade, former separatists who switched sides and declared allegiance to the Russians. The veterans are regarded by Mr Kadyrov as a possible challenge to his power. Two brothers, Ruslan and Sulim Yamadayev, who led the Vostok brigade, have been assassinated in recent months ­ Ruslan was shot in Moscow rush-hour traffic last September, and Sulim in his Dubai apartment in March.

The hunt for Ms Estemirova’s killers could mutate into a further purge of the Vostok brigade, a new round of infighting that obscures the circumstances of her death.

Other killings of human rights activists have often descended into score-settling instead of investigation. “Not a single person is brought to justice [in such cases],” Allison Gill, the director of Human Rights Watch in Russia, said.

An Islamic insurgency, inter-clan violence and endemic corruption have all created a lawlessness that the Kremlin has struggled to control. The presence of Muslim militants ­ thought to have been behind the killing of the Interior Minister of Dagestan in June ­ has allowed local counter-insurgency units, and Russian special forces, to expand operations.

It was the savagery of their tactics that Ms Estemirova was trying to chronicle ­ making her enemies not only in Grozny, but also in Moscow. The nickname for the road on which she was killed is Kidnap Highway.

Death in the line of duty
­ Paul Klebnikov, 41, editor, Forbes Russia, and author; US citizen. Died after being shot four times on July 9, 2004. Had investigated corruption and organised crime. Two suspects acquitted in 2006; FBI became involved last month

­ Anna Politkovskaya, 48, journalist, Novaya Gazeta, and author. Had exposed human rights abuses in the North Caucasus. Gunned down in her apartment building on October 7, 2006. Three suspects to be retried after an acquittal was overturned in June

­ Magomed Yevloyev, 37, journalist, founder of Ingushetiya.ru, lawyer and businessman. Prominent Kremlin critic openly opposed to Ingushetia’s government. Shot in the head in a police car on August 31, 2008

­ Stanislav Markelov, 34, human rights lawyer and journalist. Was appealing against early release of Yuri Budanov, a Russian military officer convicted of killing a young Chechen woman. Shot leaving Moscow press conference on January 15, 2009

­ Anastasia Baburova, 25, journalist, Novaya Gazeta. Had investigated neo-Nazi groups and taken part in environmental protests. Shot along with Markelov on January 15, 2009

­ Seventeen journalists have been killed in Russia in relation to their work since 2000, and in only one case have the killers been convicted

Sources: Reuters, Campaign to Protect Journalists

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Natalia Estemirova Scholarship - We want Justice. And you?


Today, on the first anniversary of Natalia Estemirova’s murder, RAW in WAR mourns and remembers Natasha and the truth about the war in Chechnya, for which she paid with her life.

We are launching a campaign to demand justice for Natasha and to honour her truth-telling. We will continue to re-print our open letter from 15 July 2009, the day Natasha was abducted and killed, until justice is done. Please show your support and sign our petition , asking the Russian Government to bring to justice those who killed Natasha Estemirova and Anna Politkovskaya, and the world’s leaders to pledge to do everything in their power to protect the journalists and human rights defenders who work in areas of war and conflict.

Help us to carry on Natasha’s work and to amplify the voice of other women from areas of war and conflict by supporting the Natalia Estemirova Scholarship in Human Rights Journalism.

The scholarship is set up in cooperation with City University in London. The recipient will undertake a one year Master course in Journalism and will also receive the opportunity of an internship placement at the Guardian newspaper.

Help us make this happen! Show your support, donate £1 HERE and ask your friends to do so too.

We need to raise £30,000 to allow the first recipient of the Natalia Estemirova Scholarship to start her programme and her career in human rights journalism.