Q. Why was Natalia Estemirova murdered?
A. We believe that Estemirova's killing was a brazen attempt to silence those telling the truth about human rights violations in Chechnya. She was the link between victims and the rest of the world. She connected victims to human rights defenders from Russia and beyond, to journalists, and to avenues of justice, like the European Court of Human Rights.
The murder corresponds to a new, uglier phase in the counterinsurgency campaign in Chechnya. The hallmark of this campaign has been an atmosphere in which law enforcement and security personnel have been able to abduct, torture, kill, and arbitrarily detain anyone they believe to be related to the insurgency in Chechnya with no fear of punishment. These actors have also pursued collective punishment against the families of suspected insurgents by, among other things, burning their homes. These are the human rights violations Estemirova had been documenting. It was well known that Estemirova was behind almost all of the reporting on human rights violations in Chechnya.
Q. President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia has ordered a special investigation and has promised that it will be thorough, but given the spate of unresolved killings of investigative journalists and human rights defenders in Russia, is this credible?
A. The investigation into Estemirova's killing can be credible - Russia is not lacking in capacity or expertise. But to date it has been lacking in political will. Previous investigations into human rights violations in Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus have not met standards of impartiality, thoroughness, and credibility. The cycle of unpunished attacks needs to be broken.
Q. How can we assess whether the investigation is credible?
A. There are several indicators that would signal a real intention to bring Estemirova's executioners to justice. The first is whether the Russian government ensures that the investigation is not handed off to local authorities. The federal prosecutor's office is now in charge of the investigation, but it must ensure that it stays in charge of it. Second, if Medvedev takes personal responsibility for overseeing the work of the prosecutor general's investigation, it will signal a serious effort to pursue the case. A third indicator is whether the investigation is open and subject to external scrutiny. The most important indicator is whether the possibility of official involvement in the killing is seriously entertained. This should include the possibility of involvement by the Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov, who has been implicated in other cases of retaliation against those who expose abuses in Chechnya. It is imperative for the investigation to bring to justice not only those who carried out the killing, but also to those who ordered it.
Q. Was there official involvement in Estemirova's killing?
A. The circumstances of Estemirova's killing - the pattern of threats against her and Memorial, the organization she worked for, the numerous threats against investigative journalists and human rights defenders in Chechnya, and the nature of her investigations of official abuses - all point to potential official involvement or acquiescence. This was an extraordinarily hostile environment for human rights defenders, and every avenue of investigation should be pursued - nothing should be off the table. The Russian government is under both a domestic and international obligation to investigate the case effectively, not only as a murder but also as a probable extrajudicial execution. The standards for such investigations have been well-elaborated by the United Nations, through the UN Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions, the work of the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and other expert manuals and writings (U.N. Doc. E/ST/CSDHA/.12 (1991)).
Q. Medvedev has said that allegations by human rights defenders about Kadyrov's involvement in Estemirova's murder were "primitive and unacceptable to the government. . . Such crimes are..., if you will, a provocation." Kadyrov himself has promised to "spare no effort" to find Estemirova's killer.
A. Kadyrov, like other Chechen officials, made threatening statements to Estemirova and other Memorial staff in Chechnya. He has fostered an atmosphere of completely unpunished lawlessness for law enforcement and security forces in Chechnya, and he has fostered a profoundly hostile and dangerous environment for human rights defenders. Under these circumstances, he does not have the credibility to ensure anything resembling an effective investigation. Further, official involvement, including by Kadyrov, in the murder cannot be excluded as a possibility.
Q. How did Kadyrov single out Estemirova?
A. After Estemirova spoke out against pressure on women in Chechnya to wear headscarves, Kadyrov reportedly told her: "Yes, my arms are in blood up to my elbows. And I am not ashamed of it. I killed and will kill bad people. We are fighting the enemies of the people." He asked Estemirova about her personal situation, including how old her daughter was. After Estemirova made her comments about headscarves, Kadyrov had her removed from her position as head of a newly formed human rights council in Chechnya. On March 31, 2008, the mayor of Grozny, Muslim Khuchiyev, called Estemirova in for a meeting at which Kadyrov was present. According to a document that Memorial published on April 18, it was Kadyrov who criticized Estemirova for giving the interview, it was he who told her that she should stop going to government institutions as part of her work, and it was he who removed her from the position as head of the council during that meeting.
Q. Have there been other threats?
A. The leadership of Chechnya has publicly threatened other staff members of Memorial Grozny. Most recently, the Ombudsman of Chechnya told Memorial Grozny that the administration of Chechnya was unhappy about the latest reporting on new "disappearances," extrajudicial executions, and a public execution in a Chechen village, and told them that he was criticizing them because he didn't want anything bad to happen to human rights activists - an implicit threat.
On June 2, 2008 the ombudsman criticized several human rights organization, including Memorial, saying that "it is time to stop [trying to mend the relationship between human rights organization and the government]. The best thing that these organizations can do now for the Republic of Chechnya is to leave her alone."
Q. What can the international community do?
A. Russia's partners, in particular the governments of the European Union and the United States, should do their utmost to press Russia for an effective, credible investigation carried out at the highest levels, making clear that the responsibility for ensuring justice for Estemirova's killing rests with Moscow. They should urge Russia to keep the international community informed about the progress of the investigation, and to invite independent international experts to participate in it.
They should further urge the Russian government to demonstrate its commitment to transparency and accountability by securing immediate and unfettered access to Russia, including to the North Caucasus, for international monitors who have long sought such access. These include the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly rapporteur on legal remedies for human rights violations in the North Caucasus, and UN special rapporteurs on torture, on extrajudicial executions, and on human rights defenders.
Finally, they should place Estemirova's killing in the broader context of lawlessness and a lack of accountability in the North Caucasus. The Kremlin installed Kadyrov and his team that has presided over this lawless counterinsurgency campaign, so it is the Kremlin's reputation that is on the line. This is why Russia's partners have to call on Russia once and for all to bring to an end the ongoing grave human rights violations in this region and ensure accountability for them.
One of the best opportunities for Russia's partners to do this is by insisting that Russia fully carry out judgments against it handed down by the European Court of Human Rights regarding human rights violations in Chechnya. The court had consistently found Russia either "incapable or unwilling" regarding investigations of exactly the types of violations Estemirova had been documenting in Chechnya. This is why involvement by Russia's international partners is crucial.
Insisting that Russia fully carry out the European Court's rulings on Chechnya is also a way of honoring Estemirova's memory: she had helped to identify, document, and pursue many of the cases from Chechnya against Russia that have been won at the European Court.
Q. How many other human rights activists and journalists have been killed in Russia?
A. This was the second killing of a human rights worker this year, and the third killing of people who were worked for accountability for abuses in Chechnya. In January, Stanislav Markelov, a lawyer who defended victims in high-profile cases of abuse in Chechnya, was shot and killed in Moscow. Anastasia Barburova, a journalist for Novaya Gazeta, was with him at the time and also was killed.
Also in January, Umar Israilov, who claimed he had been tortured by Kadyrov and had filed complaints to the Russian authorities and the European Court of Human Rights, was shot and killed in Vienna, Austria where he had received asylum.
In October 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, a Novaya Gazeta journalist who was an outspoken critic of the Kremlin and the leadership of Chechnya, was brutally murdered.
Mokhmadsalakh Masaev, a critic of the leadership of Chechnya, was abducted in August 2008 after giving a newspaper interview in which he accused Kadyrov of running illegal prisons in Chechnya. Masaev had claimed that he was held in a secret prison in Tsenteroi, Kadyrov's native village, for more than four months in 2006-2007 and subjected to inhuman treatment. His whereabouts remain unknown.
Some former allies of Kadyrov who became political opponents and critics have also been murdered:
- On November 18, 2006, Kadyrov's security forces shot dead Movladi Baisarov, a commander of a military unit in Chechnya that Kadyrov had just disbanded.
- On September 24, 2008, unknown perpetrators shot dead Ruslan Yamadayev on a street in Moscow.
- On March 28, 2009, Ruslan's brother Sulim Yamadayev was shot in Dubai. The Yamadayev brothers commanded a military unit in Chechnya that fell out with Kadyrov. Interpol has announced that seven people are wanted for this murder, including a member of the Russian Duma who is a close ally of Kadyrov.
- There were also several killings of former rebels in Turkey around the same time Sulim Yamadayev was killed