Natalia Estemirova, Russia’s latest murdered human rights defender

Natalia Estemirova of Memorial was found dead in Ingushetia, killed execution-style. She had been kidnapped just hours before in Chechnya, where she had been conducting research into extra-judicial killings. Estemirova’s murder follows a pattern: human rights defender uncovers evidence of crimes by state agents, goes public, and winds up bullet-ridden.

The slaying came the same day as the release of a report she helped research that concluded there was enough evidence to demand that Russian officials, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, be called to account for crimes committed on their watch.

“She documented the most horrendous violations, mass executions,” said Tatyana Lokshina, a Moscow researcher with the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

Estemirova’s colleagues at Memorial have no doubts about who is responsible for this latest slaying.

In previous such murders — and there have been many — the finger-pointing has been somewhat wobbly. The regime of Ramzan Kadyrov, the 32-year-old leader who runs Chechnya as his own personal fiefdom, has managed to shrug off accusations that it is somehow involved in the spate of killings that have seen Kadyrov’s opponents fall dead one by one, in Chechnya, in Moscow, and abroad.

Some have remained silent, likely fearing revenge. For Memorial, there is nothing more to fear.

Oleg Orlov, the chairman of Memorial, Russia’s preeminent human rights group, said Kadyrov has blood on his hands, and he plans on telling the world.

“Ramzan Kadyrov is personally responsible, not only because he leads Chechnya,” Orlov said, reacting more with raging anger than sadness over the death of his colleague. “He personally threatened Natalia, told her that her hands would be covered in blood and that he destroys bad people.” That threat came, he said, when Kadyrov dismissed Estemirova as head of the Grozny Human Rights Public Council early last year.

Though the war in Chechnya officially ended this year, internal violence goes on, and the brutal tactics the Kadyrov regime has employed to suppress the unvanquished insurgency have made a resumption of major armed conflict in the region more likely.

“During the past month, the level of human rights abuses has been staggering,” Lokshina said. “It seems that the law enforcement and security agencies under the control of President Kadyrov are attempting to suppress an insurgency which is suddenly on the rise.” That is happening in part, she says, because of the human rights abuses continually perpetrated by the regime.

With the murder of Estemirova, there is one less voice to expose those abuses.

Human rights work in the Russian Federation has become a grim relay race in which the living must take up the unfinished work of their murdered colleagues and run fast and fearless until they, too, are cut down.

UPDATE:

Doug Muir at AFOE writes:

It’ll be interesting to see where this goes. There have been some hints that the Kremlin is a little tired of Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov. He’s a thug and embarrassingly corrupt; more to the point, his one claim to legitimacy in the Kremlin’s eyes — bringing peace and order to Chechnya — is looking a little frayed around the edges, especially since a lot of the trouble in Chechnya just seems to have moved next door to Ingushetia. (Ms. Estemirova’s killers kidnapped her in Chechnya, but dumped her body over the border in Ingushetia. This looks like a crude attempt to blame the crime on the Ingush resistance. Which would be totally consistent with Kadyrov’s character and M.O.) In theory, the Kremlin could use this — the killing of a photogenic ethnic Russian woman — as a sharp stick to poke him.

But I doubt that will happen; while Medvedev may be getting a little weary of Kadyrov, there isn’t a plausible replacement on the horizon.

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