(c) Tanya Lokshina, Chechnya, 2007
July 15, 2019 - On the tenth anniversary of themurder of Natalia Estemirova, Chechnya’s most prominent human rights defender, nineinternational and two Russian human rights groups, jointly with FIDH and itsmember organization Human Rights Center “Memorial,” call on the Russianauthorities to finally fulfil their obligation to conduct a thorough, impartial and effective investigationinto her killing, bring the perpetrators to justice in fair trials beforeordinary civilian courts and end impunity for human rights violations inChechnya.
Natalia Estemirova was abducted, apparently by security personnel, near her apartment buildingin the Chechen capital, Grozny, on the morning of July 15, 2009. Her body wasfound several hourslater in Ingushetia, the neighbouring North Caucasus region, with multiplegunshot wounds.
From the early nineties, Natalia Estemirovafearlessly fought injustice in Chechnya. At the start of the second Chechen warin autumn 1999, she began working with Human Rights Center “Memorial” and soonbecame one of its leading activists. She fearlessly documented egregious abuses, first by the Russian military and police and later, by local Chechensecurity personnel. Herwork brought many atrocities to light, including the Russian ballistic missiles strike onChechnya’s capital, Grozny, killing over 100 civilians inOctober 1999, the massacre of dozens of civilians in the Chechen village of Novye Aldy in February2000, and enforced disappearances, torture,extra-judicial killings, and punitive house-burnings by Chechen law enforcement and securityagencies in 2007-2009.
In 2008, after she spoke out against theheadscarf requirement imposed on women by Chechen authorities, the head ofChechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, personally threatened her. She also received indirectthreats on several occasions, including in the days leadingup to her murder. In the last weeks of her life, Estemirova investigated and publicized particularly sensitive cases ofabuses by Chechen security officials, including the public execution of RizvanAlbekov in the village of Akhkinchu-Borzoy on July 7, 2009.
Natalia Estemirova’s brave work was recognizedand celebrated through several high-profile awards. She received the"Right to Life" award from the Swedish Parliament in 2004 and theEuropean Parliament's Robert Schuman medal in 2005. In 2007, she received HumanRights Watch’s annual award for extraordinary activism. After the murder of herfriend, Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, Estemirova was awarded the first RAW in WARAnna Politkovskaya Award, established in honour of the murdered Russianjournalist.
In January 2010, the Investigative Committee ofthe Russian Federation, the country’s chief investigation agency, stated thatthe murder was carried out by an insurgent, Alkhazur Bashaev, who had beenkilled by the time of the announcement. The Investigative Committee said thatBashaev supposedly committed the crime because Estemirova had implicated him asa recruiter of insurgents. Later, a different official explanation emerged;Bashaev allegedly murdered Estemirova to discredit the government of theRussian Federation and Chechen authorities on the eve of a meeting betweenRussia’s then-President Dmitry Medvedev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.This conclusion, backed by testimonies obtained from former insurgents servinglong prison terms, was neither reliable nor convincing.
In 2011, FIDH, Novaya Gazeta and Human Rights Center“Memorial” emphasized in their joint report that the inconsistencies in the official versiongave grounds to believe that a cover-up version of the events had been created to avoid investigating possible official involvement in the killing, including that of Chechen security officials. On September 20, 2011, Natalia Estemirova's relatives lodged a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights about the lack of effective investigation into her murder. The case is pending.
“’Memorial’ believes that Estemirova’s murderwas connected exclusively to her human rights work. Chechen authorities wantedher silenced. The official version, which attributes her killing to insurgents,falls apart on closer examination. Russian authorities must find and punish theperpetrators, including those who ordered the killing,” said Oleg Orlov, headof the Hot Stops program at Human Rights Center “Memorial”.
Against the backdrop of systematic persecutionof human rights defenders in Chechnya, the failure of Russian authorities toconduct an effective investigation into Estemirova’s murder appears to bedeliberate. Her killing had disastrous effects on the human rights situation inChechnya, increasing the level of fear and discouraging local residents fromseeking the assistance of human rights defenders. Kadyrov repeatedly labelledhuman rights defenders as enemies of the people and collaborators ofterrorists.
Activists of the Joint Mobile Group of humanrights defenders in Chechnya, which played a crucial role in providing legalaid to victims of abuses by local security officials in the years afterEstemirova’s murder, were subjected to numerous attacks in 2014-2016. On March9, 2016, two members of the group and six foreign and Russian journaliststraveling to Chechnya were attacked by apparent proxies of Chechen authoritiesin Ingushetia, near the administrative border with Chechnya. Mobsters,apparently acting on the orders of Chechen authorities, attacked and destroyedthe group’s office twice. All of these attacks have been carried out withcomplete impunity, forcing the group to withdraw from Chechnya due to security concerns.
The efforts made by Chechen authorities toeradicate human rights work in Chechnya culminated in the criminal case fabricated against the successor ofNatalia Estemirova, her friend and colleague Oyub Titiev, whotook lead of Memorial’s work in Chechnya soon afterEstemirova’s death. InJanuary 2018, authorities in Chechnya arrested him onbogus drug possessioncharges. After 17 months behind bars, Titiev was released onparole in June 2019.
The organisations callon Russian authorities:
- To conduct a thorough,impartial, independent, and effective investigation into the murder of NataliaEstemirova and bring the perpetrators to justice in fair trials before ordinary civilian courts;
- To investigate andensure justice for other attacks on human rights defenders and journalists inChechnya, including the attacks on activists of the Joint Mobile Group in2014-2016;
- To create a favourableworking climate for human rights defenders and journalists in Chechnya;
- To ensure respect forhuman rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with international humanrights obligations of the Russian Federation.
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Human Rights Center “Memorial”
Human Rights Watch
International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR)
Norwegian Helsinki Committee
Front Line Defenders
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
RAW in WAR (Reach All Women in WAR)
Board of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum
Committee Against Torture (CAT)
Public Verdict Foundation
European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC)
- Urgent Interventions
Five years later, human rights defender Natalia Estemirova’s murderers still at large
- Urgent Interventions
Joint Press Release: Human rights defender Oyub Titiev convicted following unfair and absurd judicial process
- Urgent Interventions
Human rights defender Oyub Titiev released on parole after spending 17 months in prison