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(Moscow) - Natalia Estemirova, a leading human rights defender in Chechnya, was found shot dead in Ingushetia on July 15, 2009, Human Rights Watch said today. She is the second human rights activist murdered in Russia in 2009 for trying to publicize grave and continuing human rights abuses in Chechnya. Human Rights Watch urged the Russian government to launch a full, independent, and transparent investigation into Estemirova's murder.

Estemirova, a researcher on the human rights situation in Chechnya for the Memorial Human Rights Center, a leading Russian nongovernmental organization, left her home at approximately 8:30 a.m. on July 15 and was abducted by unidentified perpetrators. Memorial told Human Rights Watch that two witnesses on the balcony of a nearby building saw Estemirova forced into a white car and heard her cry out that she was being kidnapped before she was driven away.

"The Russian authorities should take every possible step to bring Natalia Estemirova's killers to justice," said Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch. "It seems to be open season on anyone trying to highlight the appalling human rights abuses in Chechnya. It's high time the Russian government acted to stop these killings and prosecute those responsible."

Estemirova has been at the forefront of efforts to investigate human rights violations and work for accountability in Chechnya for more than 10 years. Her efforts brought criticism from the Chechen authorities, including the republic's president Ramzan Kadyrov. Forces under his command have been accused of multiple and repeated human rights abuses, including killings, torture, and disappearances, yet few perpetrators have been held to account in Russia. In more than 100 judgments to date, the European Court of Human Rights has found Russia responsible for grave human rights violations in Chechnya, highlighting the lack of accountability for such crimes.

Human Rights Watch called on President Dimitri Medvedev of Russia to ensure that there is a comprehensive, independent, and transparent investigation into the Estemirova case, saying that impunity for such crimes is so rampant in Chechnya that there is no possibility of an effective investigation by local authorities. In order to maintain any credibility, it is essential from the outset that initial investigation steps are conducted by federal investigators from the highest authority and not by local law enforcement, Human Rights Watch said.

Medvedev's spokesman described the Russian president as "outraged" by the killing, and said he had ordered a full investigation.

Human Rights Watch also called on Russia's international partners to urge Moscow to ensure justice for Estemirova and the other victims in Chechnya. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, is slated to meet Medvedev on July 16, and US President Barack Obama met with Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow on July 6 and 7. Human Rights Watch urged Russia to keep its international partners fully informed about the progress of the investigation.

"Estemirova fought for justice all her life and the best way to honor her would be to find her killers and put them on trial," Roth said. "Ensuring her murder does not go unpunished would help to break the vicious cycle of abuse and impunity in Chechnya."

Chechnya has experienced an upsurge in violence in recent weeks, with several cases of human rights abuses, including extrajudicial executions, punitive house burnings, abductions and arbitrary detentions. Estemirova was investigating several of these cases jointly with Human Rights Watch.

Abductions remain a common practice in Chechnya. Although the rate of abductions and enforced disappearances has declined significantly in the past several years, they are still used against those seen as critics of the authorities and against relatives of suspected insurgents.

Estemirova's death is the latest in a series of attacks and murders of lawyers seeking justice and accountability for human rights violations, particularly in Chechnya. In January, Umar Israilov, a Chechen who alleged he had been tortured by Kadyrov, was shot and killed in broad daylight in Vienna, where he was living in exile. Less than a week later, Stanislav Markelov, a prominent human rights lawyer who represented numerous victims of human rights abuses in Chechnya, was shot dead on the street after leaving a Moscow news conference. Anastasiya Baburova, a journalist who was with him, was also killed. No arrests have been made in either case.

Most famously, investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead outside her Moscow apartment in October 2006, after writing numerous articles critical of the human rights situation in Chechnya. On June 25, an appeals court overturned the acquittals of four men accused of her killing and ordered a new trial.

Estemirova has received many international prizes recognizing her work in the field of human rights, including the Human Rights Watch Defender Award (2007), the Anna Politkovskaya prize (2007), The Robert Schuman Medal of the European Parliament (2005), and the Swedish Parliament prize for "Right to Survival" (2004). She was also a key resource for foreign journalists, human rights groups, and others interested in human rights developments in Chechnya.

Human Rights Watch expressed its deepest sympathies with Estemirova's family and colleagues and its profound sorrow at Estemirova's death.

"Natalia was a close friend of Human Rights Watch, whose work was an inspiration for all of us," said Roth. "Her death is a terrible loss."

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