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Russia: Probe Official Role in Rights Defender’s Murder

Chechnya Government Officials Should Have No Part in Investigation

President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia should ensure that the investigation into the murder of the human rights defender Natalia Estemirova fully examines the possibility of official involvement, Human Rights Watch said today.

In a July 27, 2009 letter, Human Rights Watch urged Medvedev him to ensure that "all avenues of investigation will be pursued."

Medvedev's appointment of Russia's top federal investigator to lead the investigation was a positive step, Human Rights Watch said. But Medvedev's remarks at a news conference in Munich on July 16 that allegations of official involvement in Estemirova's murder are "primitive and unacceptable to the government" are a cause for concern.

"There are solid grounds for suspecting official involvement in Estemirova's murder," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "Dismissing the possibility of official involvement suggests that political limits have been placed on the scope of the investigation."

Estemirova, a human rights researcher for the Russian nongovernmental organization Memorial, was abducted and murdered on July 15. Estemirova had been documenting human rights violations during Chechnya's ongoing counterinsurgency campaign. In the months prior to her murder she had documented abductions, torture, extrajudicial killings, and collective punishment by Chechnya's security forces.

An annex to the Human Rights Watch letter listed a series of threats made by Chechen government officials, including President Ramzan Kadyrov, against Estemirova and against Memorial.

Kadyrov has announced several times that the investigation into Estemirova's murder is under his personal control. The Human Rights Watch letter urged Medvedev to clarify that "this is not the case and ensure that Mr. Kadyrov or any authorities who report to him or are ultimately responsible to him have absolutely no involvement in the investigation."

"Any involvement by Kadyrov in the investigation would essentially make it ineffective," said Roth. "And this would violate Russia's international obligations."

Under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights, when official involvement in a killing is a possibility, any investigation into the killing must be independent of the officials suspected of involvement in the murder.

Roth urged Medvedev to ensure that "at no point will the investigation be handed off to local authorities."

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