Courageous human rights defender and journalist, Natalia Estemirova was abducted and murdered on 15 July 2009. Estemirova, of Russian-Chechen descent, worked at the Grozny office of Memorial, Russia’s best known rights organisation. Tenacious in her investigations into torture, killings and other abuses in Chechnya, Estemirova was awarded for her courage by the Swedish and European parliaments.
Witnesses reported hearing Estemirova calling out that she was being kidnapped as she was forced into a van around 8.30 am as she left her home in Grozny. Her body was found some hours later in woodland in neighbouring Ingushetia. She had been shot in the head and chest. Aged 50, Natalia Estemirova leaves behind her 15-year old daughter.
Killings, abductions, beatings, the meting out of punishment for breaches of religious customs and other abuses are routinely carried out by forces of the Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov, who has been praised by the Russian government for bringing stability to Chechnya, is unashamed of his record, publicly acknowledging that he uses extreme force to deal with the “bad guys”. In one notorious incident, he reportedly called Natalia Estemirova to his office to complain about her criticism of his forces. He is said to have told her: “Yes, my arms are up to the elbows in blood. And I am not ashamed of that. I will kill and kill bad people.” Estemirova was apparently not impressed and told him so. Even after her death, Kadyrov’s disdain for her was apparent. In an interview shortly after her killing, he told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that she ” never had any honor or sense of shame ….she would say stupid things”. For details of this interview Click here
Despite knowing the acute danger, Estemirova continued to research and advocate on abuses in Chechnya, most recently a spate of house burnings by government backed militia. She has been commended by local and foreign journalists for whom she was an important source of independent information in the conflict.
Memorial has implicated President Kadyrov in her murder, an accusation that has led Kadyrov to bring a defamation case against its head, Oleg Orlov, which he won in early October 2009. Orlov is required to pay $660 to Kadyrov, and his organization, Memorial, a further $1,600. Although far smaller than the $300,000 he was demanding, Kadyrov said he was happy with the outcome, as his purpose was not to punish Orlov but to be shown “that [Orlov] was not right, and [I had] very respectfully and reasonably explained to him my opinion on this issue”. Orlov continues to maintain that Kadyrov had been involved in the murder saying “A significant portion of this trial consisted of a discussion of Ramzan Kadyrov’s guilt … I think we convincingly proved this guilt, but the court obviously did not agree with us.”
Natalia Estemirova was a close colleague of Anna Politkovskaya, who herself was assassinated in October 2006. In 2007 Estemirova was the first recipient of the annual Anna Politkovskaya Award given by the Reach All Women in War campaigning group. From 2001 until Politkovskaya’s murder, the two had worked together to expose abuses carried out by Russian armed forces in Chechnya and by Moscow-backed Chechen officials. Estemirova’s acceptance speech is a moving and harrowing description of their work together. She wrote:
No, [Politkovskaya] was not reckless. She was well aware of the gravity of the situation, particularly when she learned, in March 2002, that the interservice police detachment from Khanty-Mansijsk was coming back to Chechnya. Her fears were not unfounded–one day a car without a license plate arrived at the Murdalovs’ house. Masked gunmen came in and warned the family that they should take care, as the Khantys were around. This was not an idle warning. Some people did break into the house in the middle of the night soon after that, but then left saying that they had the wrong address. For the full speech Click here
Shortly after Estemirova’s murder, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made an apparently encouraging statement ensuring that an inquiry has been ordered into her death. About the journalist he said: “[Estemirova’s] professional activities are something that any normal country needs. She was doing a very useful job. She spoke the truth.”
If human rights defenders such as Estemirova are truly valued as Medvedev suggests, much more needs to be done to apprehend and convict those who threaten and kill them. International PEN calls for full and impartial investigation and urges that those responsible be brought to justice.
What you can do:
Letters of appeal calling for a full and impartial investigation into Natalia Estemirova’s murder may be sent to:
Mr Dmitry Medvedev
President of the Russian Federation
Fax: +7 495 206 5173 / 206 6277
For further information please contact Sara Whyatt at the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN, Brownlow House, 50-51 High Holborn, London WC1V 6ER Tel: +44 (02) 20 7405 0338 Fax: +44 (0) 20 74050339 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org