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Chechen president behind activist's murder, rights group claims

Video by Florence VILLEMINOT

Text by Tony TODD

Latest update : 2009-07-16

Russian human rights watchdog Memorial has accused Chechnya’s Moscow-backed President Ramzam Kadyrov of being responsible for the death of a leading human rights activist investigating abuses in the former Soviet republic.

A leading Russian human rights group has accused Chechnya’s strongman president of being responsible for the killing of a prominent human rights activist.


Memorial's Natalia Estemirova was abducted in Chechnya’s capital Grozny on Wednesday. Her bullet-riddled body was found in neighbouring Ingushetia hours later.


Estemirova had been gathering evidence of an alleged campaign of house burnings as collective punishment by government-backed Chechen militias.


In a strongly worded statement, the head of Memorial, Oleg Orlov, linked the Chechen authorities, and in particular Kremlin-backed President Ramzan Kadyrov, to the murder.


"I know for sure who is responsible for the killing of Natalia Estemirova," Orlov's statement said. "We all know that man. It is Ramzan Kadyrov, president of the Chechen Republic. Ramzan threatened Natalia, insulted her, believed her to be his personal enemy.



“We don't know whether it was Ramzan himself who ordered someone to kill Natalia or if his close associates did it to please the ruling authority.”


In contrast to the confused Kremlin response to the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was quick to express "outrage" at the killing, saying her murder "must not go unpunished".

Veiled threats

Memorial spokeswoman Marie Shipikalova told FRANCE 24 that Estemirova had informed the organisation of receiving veiled threats from Kadyrov.


Shipikalova said Kadyrov had told Estemirova, “My hands are indeed covered in blood. I am not ashamed of it. I have killed and will kill people who threaten the security of this republic.”


Jean-Marie Fardeau of Human Rights Watch in Paris told FRANCE 24 that any investigation into the murder should not be carried out by Chechen officials.


“That Kadyrov is responsible for the murder is highly plausible,” he said. “We know Natalia was threatened by Kadyrov’s colleagues and by Kadyrov himself. She knew that she was threatened.”


Kadyrov has previously denied allegations that he was involved in the killing of Russian journalist Politkovskaya.


He did not respond directly to Memorial’s accusations, but he did condemn her killing, saying the perpetrators “must be punished as the cruellest of criminals".

The rule of law?

The murder is the latest in a series of killings of journalists and human rights defenders in Russia which has drawn international condemnation and led to questions about Medvedev's pledges to uphold the rule of law and build a freer society.


Well known to diplomats and human rights activists in Russia, Estemirova was the inaugural recipient in 2007 of the Anna Politkovskaya Award, an honour given by the charity Reach All Women in War.


Memorial said Estemirova's investigations into abductions, unlawful killings and public executions had resulted in repeated warnings from authorities in Chechnya.


The mainly Muslim region of Chechnya was defeated in two separatist wars against Russia in the 1990s. Along with the nearby republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan, it still faces a simmering Islamist insurgency.


Human rights groups have repeatedly accused the authorities of serious abuses including house burning, extra-judicial killings and torture.


"It seems to be open season on anyone trying to highlight the appalling human rights abuses in Chechnya," said HRW's executive director, Kenneth Roth.


"Ensuring her murder does not go unpunished would help to break the vicious cycle of abuse and impunity in Chechnya."

Date created : 2009-07-16