- Caucasus - human rights - Russia
AFP - Pressure mounted on Russia Thursday to solve the murder of a leading activist who exposed abuses in Chechnya, the latest in a slew of killings of rights campaigners and journalists.
Prize-winning Natalya Estemirova, 50, who worked for leading Russian rights group Memorial, which has exposed a string of abuses in the conflict-torn North Caucasus region, was found murdered after being abducted in Chechnya.
Her body, with gunshot wounds to the head and chest, was found close to a highway in the region of Ingushetia that neighbours Chechnya.
She had been kidnapped from near her home in the capital Grozny and bundled into a vehicle, Memorial said.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev "expressed indignation at this murder" and ordered a top-level investigation, Kremlin spokeswoman Natalya Timakova said, quoted by Russian news agencies.
The swift Kremlin reaction contrasted with sluggish responses to previous killings of activists, including the 2006 slaying of Politkovskaya.
US State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Washington was "deeply saddened," and added in a statement: "We call upon the Russian government to bring those responsible to justice.
"She was devoted to shining a light on human rights abuses, particularly in Chechnya," Kelly added.
The European Union's Swedish presidency called upon Moscow "to swiftly and thoroughly investigate the murder of Natalya Estemirova and to bring the perpetrators to justice."
Her murder "draws attention to the necessity of protecting human rights defenders in Russia," it said in a statement.
In 2007 Estemirova was awarded the Anna Politkovskaya prize -- named after the murdered Russian journalist, her friend and collaborator -- by the Nobel Women's Initiative, a group established by female Nobel Peace Prize laureates.
Chechnya's Kremlin-backed strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov voiced outrage at the "inhuman" murder and pledged to personally oversee the investigation, the RIA Novosti news agency reported.
"Those who raised their hand against her have no right to call themselves human and deserve no mercy. Life imprisonment is not enough for Estemirova's murderers, they must be judged as inhuman, who attacked not only a helpless woman, but our whole people," Kadyrov said.
But many pointed a finger at Chechen authorities.
"I have no doubt that this murder is linked to the professional activities of Natalya," Tatyana Lokshina of Human Rights Watch told AFP. "It's a horrific tragedy. The situation in Chechnya is out of control."
The New York-based HRW called on Russian President Dmitry Medvedev "to ensure that there is a comprehensive, independent, and transparent investigation" into the killing.
"In order to maintain any credibility, it is essential from the outset that initial investigation steps are conducted by federal investigators from the highest authority and not by local law enforcement," it said in a statement.
Amnesty International said the murder was "a consequence of the impunity that has been allowed to persist by the Russian and Chechen authorities."
Estemirova was one of the main Caucasus-based activists for Memorial, which is acclaimed for its work exposing rights abuses in the region.
Earlier this month, Memorial and Human Rights Watch issued a hard-hitting report accusing Chechen security forces of punishing families of alleged militants by burning down their homes.
The Chechen authorities had expressed dissatisfaction with her work more than once, said Memorial.
Alexander Cherkassov, a Caucasus expert from Memorial, told AFP that Estemirova most recently upset local officials by accusing security forces of the arbitrary killing of an alleged rebel on July 7.
Russia earlier this year ended a 10-year "counter-terrorism" operation in Chechnya, a mainly Muslim region riven by two separatist wars since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
It is now led by pro-Kremlin strongman Kadyrov, whose regime has been criticised for human rights abuses.