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(Moscow) - The Russian authorities should immediately drop the criminal slander case against Oleg Orlov, the head of one of Russia's leading rights groups, Human Rights Watch said today. The charges stem from Orlov's statement suggesting that the Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov, was responsible for the July 2009 murder of the human rights advocate Natalia Estemirova.

"Orlov is entitled to his opinion," said Allison Gill, Moscow office director at Human Rights Watch. "Kadyrov and the Russian authorities should go after those responsible for killing human rights defenders instead of using the law to silence criticism."

The Russian government should take into account the standards applicable under Russia's human rights obligations, especially the right to freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said. And the government should be aware that the threshold for criticism of a public official is much higher than that for a private individual.

Orlov, chairman of the Memorial Human Rights Center, received a summons on June 18 to report to a police investigation department in Moscow on July 6 to be officially charged with slander for his statement against Kadyrov. After the brazen killing of Estemirova on July 15, 2009, Orlov commented on Kadyrov's "responsibility" for the murder. In response, Kadyrov filed a civil suit for damages to his "honor and dignity" seeking 5 million rubles compensation each from Orlov and the Memorial Human Rights Center. He also filed a criminal complaint for slander against Orlov.

In October 2009, a Moscow court ruled that Orlov's statement constituted libel against Kadyrov and imposed fines of 20,000 and 50,000 rubles respectively against Orlov and Memorial. Orlov and Memorial lost an appeal and and declared their intention to take the case all the way to the European Court for Human Rights. In February, Kadyrov announced that he would withdraw all his legal complaints against Orlov and his other critics. However, the investigator in charge of the criminal slander case told Orlov's lawyer today that the investigation had not received the required notification from Kadyrov. If convicted of slander, Orlov faces a sentence of up to three years in prison.

Estemirova, a leading Chechnya researcher for Memorial, was abducted outside her home in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, and was found shot dead in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia later the same day. The circumstances of Estemirova's murder, along with a pattern of threats against her, Memorial, and investigative journalists and human rights defenders in Chechnya, as well as the nature of her investigations into official abuses, all point to possible official involvement in or acquiescence to her murder. The investigation into the killing has been going on for almost a year and has yielded no tangible results.

"Russia should prosecute those who murder human rights defenders, not those who speak out," Gill said. "Natasha Estemirova was one of six activists working on exposing human rights abuses in the North Caucasus who were murdered last year, and no one has been brought to justice."

Human Rights Watch called on Russia's international partners to urge President Dmitry Medvedev to back statements he has made with concrete steps to ensure full and effective investigation into these murders and to guarantee protection to human rights defenders courageously working in the volatile North Caucasus region.

In May, President Medvedev met with nongovernmental organizations to discuss the situation in the North Caucasus and repeatedly stressed the importance of human rights work and partnership between civil society activists and the authorities at all levels.

"Ending rampant impunity, especially for the murders of human rights defenders, as the Russian government has promised it would, is the only way to create normal working conditions for civil society in the North Caucasus," Gill said.

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