Human rights activist kidnapped and killed in the Caucasus

A rally in memory of the murdered human rights activist Natalya Estemirova in Novopushkinsky Park on July 16, 2009. (RIA Novosti / Grigoriy Sisoev)
The body of a human rights activist who was kidnapped on Wednesday in Chechnya has been found in the neighboring north Caucasian republic of Ingushetia.

The Investigation Committee of the Russian prosecution office said the body of a person carrying the identification of Natalya Estemirova was found on Wednesday afternoon near the city of Nazran.

It appears the woman died from gun shots in the head and chest. 

Russian Investigation Committee considers the professional activities of the human right activist to be the main reason for her murder.

“Investigators are working in the Republic of Ingushetia, They are looking for those who carried out the crime. A number of medical examinations have been set. We think that Natalya Estemirova was targeted most likely because of her professional activity,” informed prosecutor’s office spokesman Vladimir Markin.

Arkady Edelev, Russia's Deputy Interior Minister, suggested three additional motives for the murder, besides Estemirova’s work.

“Theory number two …says that this was a provocation by armed gang leaders who wanted to defy the region’s authorities,” he said.

A third theory is a robbery, he went on. “The woman received money under international grant programs and had cash in foreign currency.”

Finally, Edelev said, “There is also a domestic crime theory that the murder was due to personal relations, family problems, etc”.

President Dmitry Medvedev said he's shocked by the killing and pledged that the murder investigation will be given priority.

The president of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov said those who carried out the murder deserve no support and should be punished as cruelest of criminals. He called the murder a cynical challenge and took the investigation under his personal control.

“The murder of Natalya Estemirova, who, apart from other things, was a member of the Chechen branch of the Memorial human rights center, was surely an impudent and provocative act, which will evoke a wide response.”

First Deputy Head of the State Duma Security Committee, Mikhail Grishankov

Estemirova investigated kidnappings and disappearances of people in Chechnya for the Memorial group, one of the best known Russia’s human rights organizations.

Aleksandr Cherkasov, one of her colleagues, told the Interfax news agency:

"When Natalya Estemirova was leaving her house in Grozny [the Chechen capital] at 8:30 a.m. today, she was seized, pushed into a white VAZ-2107 car and taken in an unknown direction."

Human rights activist Natalya Estemirova in the Chechen capital city of Grozny in 2004. Photo courtesy of the Memorial Human Rights Center (RIA Novosti)

He also said Estemirova had several meetings planned for the day and when she didn’t turn up, her colleagues sounded the alarm. They learned of the abduction from eyewitnesses near Natalya’s home.

“We are shocked by the murder and express our condolences to Natalya’s family and friends. President Medvedev must fulfill his promise and conduct a thorough and open investigation.”

Robert Mahoney, Deputy Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists

A criminal case into the incident has been launched. 

The 50-year-old began her career as a history teacher. She then turned to journalism and, since the late 1990s, has also been a human rights activist.

Estemirova had earlier worked with Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who was shot dead in Moscow in October 2006, and human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, who was killed in the Russian capital in January 2009.

For her active role in protecting human rights, she was awarded a number of prestigious international awards including the Anna Politkovskaya Award, given by the charity Reach All Women in War (RAW in WAR).

'She received many threats'

“It’s sad to realize that physical punishment of journalists, who have their own active citizenship and courage, has really become a routine reality for our country.”

Gennady Gudkov, Deputy Head of the State Duma Security Committee

Estemirova’s colleagues and friends are shocked and say she had received many threats connected to her work.

Oleg Orlov, Head Council at the Memorial center said, “All this time, Natalya was our leading specialist”.

”She was a true human rights activist. She collected data about horrible cases of human rights violations, but she also helped people. She couldn't put up with people being humiliated, offended, having their rights trampled on,” he said.

”Natalya always stood up for each person's rights,” Orlov concluded.

Tatyana Lokshina, deputy director of the organization, said Estemirova was “someone who handled the most sensitive cases, the cases that many other people would not even dare to touch because of the tremendous security risk.”

“We have don’t have a shadow of a doubt that she was killed simply for doing her job,” Lokshina said.

'Time and date of murder are not accidental'

Gisbert Mrozek, the Editor-in-Chief of Russland-Aktuell on-line magazine, says the date for the murder was not chosen at random.

“Natalya Estemirova devoted her life to the defense of human rights. She couldn’t have enemies among straight-thinkers. And those who took her life can’t be called human beings. There shouldn’t be any mercy to them and they should by punished as cruel criminals.”

Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov

“I was especially shocked by how and when she was killed because I remembered the murder of Anna Politkovskaya who was killed three years ago – as you maybe remember – exactly on the birthday of President Putin and one day before the start-up of the Russian-German governmental consultations in Germany, in the town of Dresden,” he said.

And, he went on, “tomorrow in Germany, near Munich, there will start another regular German-Russian governmental consultations and civil society discussion forum, the Petersburg Dialog, as it was three years ago,” he said.

“So, the killing of Natalya Estemirova … is a sort of an exact political copy of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya,” Gisbert Mrozek concluded.

Estemirova had arranged rendezvous with Chechen investigators

Natalya Estemirova had an arrangement to meet the head of Investigation Committee for the Chechen Republic on the day of her death, informs ITAR-TASS news agency.

The exact time of the meeting had not been set, as she was told to come at any suitable time because it was a visiting day. Estemirova did not specify the reason for her visit because she planned to discuss the issue privately with the Committee’s head.

The investigation of the murder of Natalya Estemirova is now under the special control of Russia’s Prosecutor General Yury Chaika.

The Chairman of the Investigation Committee of Russia, Aleksandr Bastrykin, has traveled to Chechnya to co-ordinate investigation on the ground.

The North Caucasus region has seen a rise in violence in recent months

In May, just a month after the ten-year long counter-terrorist operation was lifted in Chechnya, a suicide bomb attack killed four people in the centre of the Chechen capital Grozny. This prompted a joint anti-terrorist mission on the border between Chechnya and Ingushetia.

On June 22, the Ingush president, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, was seriously injured during an assassination attempt.

Not a week has passed without reports of clashes between militants and police. Just on Monday, five militants were killed in Chechnya in two separate incidents with police.

Ingush parliament speaker Makhmud Sokolov told Interfax he believes the apparent murder of Natalya Estemirova was aimed at worsening the situation in the region and driving a wedge between the Ingush and Chechen people.

Activists hold rallies

On Thursday, human rights campaigners gathered at a rally in the centre of Moscow in memory of Natalya Estemirova.

One of the organizers of the protest was the Memorial human rights group, where Natalya worked.

Rally in memory of murdered human rights activist Natalya Estemirova in Moscow, 2009 (RIA Novosti / Grigoriy Sisoev)

Representatives from Russian opposition parties also participated in the rally.

The demonstrators held photographs of Estemirova along with murdered investigative journalists Anna Politkovskaya and Anastasia Baburova.

A similar rally took place in Russia’s ‘northern capital’, St. Petersburg.

Meanwhile, the human rights group Memorial has temporarily suspended work in the North Caucasus region following Estemirova's murder.

In accordance with the Muslim tradition, Estemirova was buried at a cemetery in the Chechen village of Koksheldy, next to her father’s grave.