July 15, 2009

Natalia Estemirova, a top human rights activist in the troubled Russian republic of Chechnya and a close colleague of Human Rights Watch, was abducted near her home in Grozny on the morning of July 15, 2009, carried off in a car as people on a nearby balcony heard her call for help. Her body was found later that day in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia.

Estemirova was a researcher with the leading Russian human rights group Memorial for a decade and had worked closely with Human Rights Watch, including on its recent investigations into the punitive killings and house burnings against people suspected by Chechen authorities of having links to rebels.  She was named a top human rights defender by Human Rights Watch in 2007 under its Voices for Justice program. She received the European Parliament's Robert Schuman medal in 2005, and the "Right to Life" award from the Swedish Parliament in 2004. She was the first recipient of the Anna Politkovskaya prize, in honor of the slain Russian journalist.

In Chechnya, where decades of armed conflict have made violence and abuse a daily reality, human rights defenders like Estemirova are rare. She was known for her fearlessness in exposing human rights violations and for demanding that perpetrators be held accountable.  At her urging, victims and witnesses of Chechnya's brutalities broke their silence to denounce their abusers, some even testifying in court cases brought by Memorial and others in an attempt to see the perpetrators held to account.

Estimirova knew the risk she was taking. In accepting the Human Rights Watch award in November 2007 she told the audience:  "In Chechnya, the government creates an atmosphere of fear and mistrust. Those who witness abuse keep silent, for if they speak they can soon become a victim. Can you imagine living each day wondering who might turn you in to the government for saying the wrong thing?"

Human Rights Watch has called on Russian authorities to investigate immediately the abduction and killing of Estemirova, to bring all of those involved to justice, and to put a halt to the atmosphere of fear and unpunished violence in the region.

"Natalia fought for justice all her life and the best way to honor her would be to find her killers and put them on trial," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "We're devastated by her death. But ensuring her murder does not go unpunished would help to break the vicious cycle of abuse and impunity in Chechnya."

Human Rights Watch expressed its deepest condolences to Estemirova's family and colleagues.