- Caucasus - Chechnya - human rights - murder - Russia
AFP - Russian rights group Memorial suspended operations in Chechnya on Saturday following the murder this week of prominent activist Natalya Estemirova.
"This murder has shown that working in Chechnya is fatally dangerous and we cannot risk the lives of our colleagues even if they are ready to carry on their work," said Memorial's Alexander Cherkasov.
"We are suspending the activities of our office in Chechnya," he added, without saying for how long.
Estemirova, 50, was found dead 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 that same morning.
She was one of Memorial's main employees in Chechnya and had won worldwide acclaim for uncovering rights abuses. Her death prompted tributes from around the globe and calls on Russia to find the killers.
Memorial's head Oleg Orlov accused pro-Kremlin Chechen leader Ramzon Kadyrov of being responsible for the murder of Estemirova, saying he was guilty irrespective of who ordered the killing.
Kadyrov's lawyer responded by saying he was suing Orlov for defamation in order to protect the "honour, worthiness and professional reputation of the president of the Chechen Republic."
Kadyrov had earlier personally telephoned Orlov to bluntly rebuke him for his allegations.
"You are not a prosecutor or a judge therefore your claims about my guilt are not ethical, to put it mildly, and are insulting to me," the Chechen strongman told Orlov, according to an account of the conversation posted on Kadyrov's website.
"I am sure that you have to think about my rights before declaring for everyone to hear that I am guilty of Estemirova's death," he said.
Orlov had said in a statement, "I know, I am sure who is guilty of Natalya Estemirova's murder, we all know him -- his name is Ramzan Kadyrov."
"We do not know if he gave the order himself or his close associates did so to please their boss," Orlov added.
Kadyrov is a hugely controversial figure, praised by the Kremlin for restoring some stability to Chechnya but hated by rights activists, who accuse him of letting a personal militia carry out kidnappings and torture.
In April, Russia ended its controversial "anti-terror operation" in Chechnya, a move that analysts said gave the maverick leader a freer hand in running his war-ravaged region.
Rights advocates and journalists warned that with Estemirova's murder it would become extremely difficult to obtain independent information on the situation in Chechnya.