(Moscow) - Russian authorities should ensure that the investigation into the murders of Chechen civil society activists Zarema Sadulayeva and her husband, Alik Dzhabrailov, is effective and independent, Human Rights Watch said today. To be independent, it is essential that the investigation be under federal - not local - control and that it examine the possibility of collusion by local officials, Human Rights Watch said.
Sadulayeva was the head of the nongovernmental organization Save the Generation, which helps children with disabilities in Chechnya. She and Dzhabrailov were taken from their office in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, on the afternoon of August 10, 2009, by five armed men. Their bodies were found, with multiple gunshot wounds, at about 4 a.m. on August 11 in the trunk of Dzhabrailov's car on the outskirts of Grozny.
"This is a ghastly crime, and its authors must be brought to justice," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "These killings, less than a month after the murder of Natalia Estemirova, make it absolutely clear that anyone trying to help the people of Chechnya is in mortal danger."
Sadulayeva and Dzhabrailov were led away from their office in the Chechen capital by five armed men, three of them in black uniforms, who introduced themselves as members of local security services. The men said they would return the couple promptly, a witness reported.
Soon afterward, several of the men returned to the organization's office, took Dzhabrailov's mobile phone and his car, and gave a witness a cell phone number to call in case there were any questions. Calls made to the number did not go through, however, and a recorded message said the phone was "out of the coverage area."
According to the Russian news agency Interfax, a group of criminologists from the Investigative Committee of the Office of the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation has gone to Chechnya to assist with the investigation, and Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika has ordered the chief of the group, Alexander Bastrykin, to travel immediately to the scene of the crime. At the same time, according to press reports, the president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov has said he has taken the investigation under his "personal control."
"As with the murder of Estemirova, there are solid grounds for suspecting official collusion by local authorities in the killing of Sadulayeva and Dzhabrailov," said Cartner. "This possibility needs to be pursued."
To ensure that the investigation is absolutely independent, the federal authorities should be fully in charge, Human Rights Watch said. At no point should they hand off any part of the investigation to local officials, and Kadyrov should have no role in or influence on the investigation.
Human Rights Watch also called for federal protection for witnesses to the abduction.
"Witnesses to human rights violations in Chechnya are all too frequently threatened into silence," said Cartner. "We urge the federal prosecutor's office to offer full protection to witnesses to the abduction, as well as to their families."
The killing of Sadulayeva and Dzhabrailov brings to four the number of activists working on Chechnya who have been killed since January 2009. In addition to the killing of Estemirova on July 15, Stanislav Markelov, a prominent human rights lawyer, was murdered in January.
Human Rights Watch expressed its deepest sympathies to Sadulayeva and Dzhabrailov's family and colleagues and its profound sorrow at their death.
Save the Generation, the group that Sadulayeva headed, is a nongovernmental organization in Chechnya founded in 2001 that provides psychological and physical rehabilitation to children with disabilities, orphans, and other socially vulnerable groups. The group also works closely with UNICEF, among other organizations, to provide training about landmines, and promotes protection of the rights of those with disabilities.
"The Russian government needs to put an end to the chain of attacks on activists," said Cartner. "Russian officials need to conduct thorough, effective investigations into these killings, and make sure that all the perpetrators are prosecuted and punished."