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Activist's murder highlights the risks for rights groups

Text by: FRANCE 24 (with wires)
3 min

The abduction and murder of a leading human rights activist has shined a spotlight on the continuing violence in Chechnya and the risks faced by those who try to document rights abuses in the former Soviet republic.


For embattled Russian rights activists, the murder of Natalya Estemirova has dealt a huge blow to efforts to expose abuses in the Caucasus and confirmed the dangers of challenging the authorities.


The award-winning Estemirova, 50, who worked for Russia's oldest rights group Memorial, was found murdered after being abducted in Chechnya on Wednesday.


"In Chechnya there are no conditions for human rights groups to work," the head of Memorial, Oleg Orlov, told AFP. "It's a totalitarian society."


"She was the soul of our organisation, the soul of our work. They killed our soul. I don't know how we will work in the future," Orlov said.


Memorial has won acclaim abroad for waging a lonely struggle to expose rights abuses and distortions of history in Russia. The group has blamed Estemirova’s death on pro-Kremlin Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, saying she had received numerous threats from the authorities.


Estemirova's murder brought back memories among Russian activists of the 2006 killing of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya. The two worked often together reporting on rights abuses in Chechnya and were said to be close friends.


Calls for action in a forgotten land


Western governments piled pressure on Russia on Thursday to catch the killers of a renowned rights activist, as campaign groups accused Moscow of turning a blind eye to abuses.


The United Nations also joined calls for a thorough, "transparent" investigation of the killing of Estemirova, whose bullet-riddled body was found in Ingushetia just hours after her abduction in the neighbouring republic of Chechnya.


Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, welcomed Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's decision to order an investigation into the case.


Noting that the human rights activists in North Caucasus work under "precarious" conditions, Pillay said the case "sadly underlines once again the need for governments to do much more to protect human rights defenders".


Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in Munich for talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said "such a crime must not go unpunished”.


Speaking at a news conference with Merkel, he paid tribute to Estemirova, saying: "She did very useful things. She spoke the truth and openly, sometimes toughly described some processes that happen in this country."


Soon after news of her death broke, Medvedev's office issued a statement deploring her murder and ordering an investigation.


Merkel told reporters: "I think that on the Russian side, everything must be done to catch the killer."


‘Open season’ on rights activists?


New York-based Human Rights Watch called for "a comprehensive, independent, and transparent investigation".


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


Irene Khan, Amnesty International's secretary general, said: "Natalia Estemirova’s murder is a consequence of the impunity that has been allowed to persist by the Russian and Chechen authorities."


US State Department spokesman Ian Kelly paid tribute to Estemirova's human rights work. "We call upon the Russian government to bring those responsible to justice," he said.


Speaking for the EU presidency, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said: "We condemn that brutal act and call for the authorities to try to establish who is responsible and take the action that is called for."


In 2007 Estemirova was awarded the Anna Politkovskaya prize -- named after the murdered journalist who embarrassed the Kremlin by exposing Russian abuses during the war in Chechnya and whose killers have also so far evaded justice.


Terry Davis, secretary-general of the 47-nation Council of Europe that oversees human rights standards in member states, said: "How many more Natalya Estemirovas and Anna Politkovskayas must be killed before the Russian authorities protect people who stand up for the human rights of Russian citizens?"



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