Instead of Identifying Killers, Authorities Threatening Rights Activists
July 13, 2012
Three years after the brazen murder of Natalia Estemirova, the authorities act like they can’t carry out an effective investigation and instead are apparently trying to silence activists who have picked up her mantle.
Tanya Lokshina, senior Russia researcher

(Moscow) – The Russian authorities should finally bring to justice the killers of the leading Chechen right activist Natalia Estemirova, Human Rights Watch said today at a news conference in Moscow. Three years after her murder, her killers have not been identified and the situation for human rights defenders in the region continues to deteriorate.

The Kremlin should effectively investigate killings of and attacks against other activists in the region, Human Rights Watch said. It should immediately stop the ongoing criminal inquiry regarding Igor Kalyapin, head of the Joint Mobile Group of Russian Human Rights Defenders in Chechnya, which was formed to assist victims of human rights violations following Estemirova’s death.

“Three years after the brazen murder of Natalia Estemirova, the authorities act like they can’t carry out an effective investigation and instead are apparently trying to silence activists who have picked up her mantle,” said Tanya Lokshina, senior Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

On July 7, 2012, Kalyapin was interrogated by the Investigation Committee for Russia’s Southern Federal District. The interrogation was part of an inquiry into allegations by the Federal Security Service (FSB) that he had disclosed secret information in his blog and in articles and interviews about cases of torture and enforced disappearance in Chechnya.

On July 15, 2009, unidentified armed men abducted Estemirova, a researcher on human rights abuses in Chechnya for the Russian human rights group Memorial, outside her home in Grozny. Her body, with multiple gunshot wounds, was found in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia later that day. The circumstances of Estemirova’s death and the threats that she received because of her human rights work pointed to possible official involvement in or acquiescence to her murder.

There has been no progress in the investigation into her death in the past year, Human Rights Watch said. Despite repeated reassurances by federal authorities that Estemirova’s case is close to being resolved, the investigation still appears to be based solely on the premise that Estemirova was killed by Chechen insurgents in retaliation for exposing some of their crimes. Along with leading Russian human rights activists, Human Rights Watch disputes that as the most likely scenario and has observed significant discrepancies in the evidence cited by the authorities.

The authorities should explain publicly what steps, if any, have been taken to examine the possibility of official involvement in the killing, Human Rights Watch said.

Several months after the murder of their colleague, several prominent Russian human rights organizations under the leadership of the Nizhny Novgorod Committee Against Torture created the Joint Mobile Group. The group sends rotating teams of human rights lawyers to Chechnya to provide legal assistance to victims of grave human rights abuses by local law enforcement and security agencies.

Chechen officials have repeatedly threatened the Mobile Group, attempting to force it to stop its work in the region. Most recently, in June, Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-appointed Chechen leader, and other top Chechen officials aggressively criticized the group’s work at a staged meeting, which was then broadcast on local television.

Kalyapin’s blog, articles, and media comments are focused on crimes against residents of the Chechen republic allegedly carried out by local police operating under Kadyrov’s de facto control. The authorities accuse him of disclosing some “secrets of the investigation” by publicizing this information, especially in the case of Islam Umarpashaev.

Umarpashaev, one of the clients of the Joint Mobile Group, had spent four months in incommunicado detention, allegedly at the headquarters of the Chechen special police task force (OMON) and suffered torture and other forms of inhuman and degrading treatment. Due to the relentless efforts of the Mobile Group and Kalyapin personally, there has been some progress in the investigation into his case.

Kalyapin told Human Rights Watch he had not disclosed any secrets of the investigation and worked solely to draw public attention to the shocking lack of effective investigation by relevant authorities into abuses by law enforcement officials in Chechnya. Kalyapin said that this is the authorities’ third attempt to open criminal proceedings against him because of his work in the region.

“There is little doubt this criminal inquiry against Kalyapin, as well as the two previous ones, are designed to coerce him into silence and have the Mobile Group withdraw from Chechnya,”  Lokshina said. “Some high level officials apparently see their work as a threat – as they did the work of Estemirova, who devoted her life to exposing horrific abuses by military, police, and security servicemen.”

Threats and harassment against human rights defenders in Chechnya have increased since Estemirova’s murder, and the working environment has deteriorated. Three weeks after she was killed, Zarema Sadulaeva and Alik Djabrailov, activists with “Save the Generation,” a local nongovernmental organization, were also abducted in Grozny and murdered. The investigation into their killing has not yielded tangible results.

Over the last three years, Human Rights Watch has regularly received reports from Chechnya about harassment and intimidation of local activists. In 2011, one activist had to stay away from Chechnya for several months due to vicious harassment; another activist was taken to an unlawful detention facility and beaten. In 2012, a local activist was abducted and threatened.

“We are especially concerned for the safety of the activists from the Mobile Group as they work on the most sensitive cases at great personal risk, helping people who suffered abductions and torture and families that lost their loved ones to enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings,” Lokshina said.

Russia’s international partners should call the Russian authorities to task, reminding them of their repeated pledges to foster a normal working climate for human rights defenders in the North Caucasus, Human Rights Watch said. European Union member states and the US should speak with one voice calling for justice for Estemirova and an end of the entrenched impunity for killings of and attacks on human rights defenders in Chechnya and the broader region.