(Moscow) - A year after the brazen murder of Natalia Estemirova, a leading human rights defender in Chechnya, the perpetrators still have not been brought to justice, Human Rights Watch said today. In the wake of Estemirova's killing, Human Rights Watch urged the Russian government to open a thorough, independent, and transparent investigation into the crime. That investigation has yielded no tangible results.
Estemirova, a Chechnya researcher for Memorial, was abducted outside her home in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, on July 15, 2009, and was found shot dead in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia later that 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, point to possible official involvement in or acquiescence to her murder, Human Rights Watch said.
"Estemirova's killing was a brazen attempt to silence those telling the truth about human rights violations in Chechnya," said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Natalia exposed some of the most serious abuses in Chechnya and helped make sure the world learned about them."
For more than 10 years, Estemirova had been at the forefront of efforts to investigate human rights violations and work for accountability in Chechnya. 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.
Several years before she was killed, her efforts started to bring strong criticism from the Chechen authorities, including the republic's president, Ramzan Kadyrov. Forces under his de facto control have been accused of multiple and repeated human rights abuses, including torture, disappearances, collective punishment, and extrajudicial killings.
During the last week of her life, Estemirova had exposed several highly sensitive cases, including a public extrajudicial execution of a man suspected of collaborating with insurgents. She researched these cases jointly with Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch has been documenting new cases of such violations in Chechnya, though many victims are threatened into silence by local law enforcement and security agencies.
"Ensuring that Estemirova's murder does not go unpunished would help to break the vicious cycle of abuse and impunity in Chechnya," Denber said.
Since Estemirova's murder the working environment for human rights defenders in Chechnya has remained very hostile. Three weeks after her death, two other prominent activists, Zarema Sadulaeva and Alik Djabrailov from "Save the Generation," a nongovernmental organization which helps children with disabilities in Chechnya, were abducted in Grozny and murdered. Several staff members of Memorial received serious threats, and well-grounded fear for their physical security forced three of them to leave the region.
"Throughout the past year, the Kremlin has repeatedly pledged to create a normal working environment for human rights defenders in the North Caucasus," Denber said. "To make good on this pledge, the Kremlin needs to ensure that Estemirova's killers and those behind the murder are brought to justice."
Human Rights Watch said that the Russian government has obligations under both domestic and international law to investigate Estemirova's case effectively and to ensure the scope of the investigation includes examining whether the killing was an extrajudicial execution. The standards for such investigations have been 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.
This means that the investigation needs to examine thoroughly the possibility of official involvement in Estemirova's murder, Human Rights Watch said. This should not exclude the possibility of involvement by Kadyrov, who has been implicated in other cases of retaliation against those who expose abuses in Chechnya, made threatening statements to Estemirova and other Memorial staff, and fostered an atmosphere of impunity for law enforcement and security forces.
"This time last year when mourning our friend and colleague, Natalia Estemirova, we urged the Russian government to do everything in their power to bring her killers to justice," Denber said. "Now we are asking the Russian authorities to be transparent about what -- if any -- steps have been undertaken by investigators to examine possible official involvement in or acquiescence to Natalia's murder."