By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 16, 2009
MOSCOW, July 15 -- Chechnya's most outspoken human rights activist was found shot to death hours after being kidnapped Wednesday, provoking international outrage and calls for renewed scrutiny of Russia's violent policies in the Caucasus.
Police said Natalya Estemirova, a former schoolteacher who had angered Chechen authorities with reports of torture, abductions and extrajudicial killings, was discovered with two close-range gunshot wounds to the head in woods in the neighboring province of Ingushetia.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev condemned the killing, offered condolences and ordered the nation's top investigative official to "take all necessary measures" to solve the crime -- responding more swiftly than the Kremlin has in other recent killings of government critics.
But Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch, which honored Estemirova in 2007, said the Kremlin must do more. "What we really need is a truly independent, comprehensive and transparent investigation," she said. "We need Medvedev go further and say that impunity for these kinds of crimes in Chechnya is rampant."
The White House, in a statement from National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer, called on Russia to "bring to justice those responsible for this outrageous crime and demonstrate that lawlessness and impunity will not be tolerated."
Confirmation of Estemirova's death came at the end of a tense day that began with witness reports that four men had seized her outside her home in Grozny, the Chechen capital, and forced her into a car as she shouted for help. Eight hours later, her body was discovered nearly 50 miles away, police said.
The widow of a Chechen policeman and the mother of a teenage daughter, Estemirova, 50, was honored in 2005 by the European Parliament for her work on behalf of victims of violence in Chechnya, where for more than a decade she documented abuses for newspapers and the rights organization Memorial.
Colleagues said she ignored death threats and collected evidence with a persistence that infuriated local leaders, including Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, a former warlord who has been accused of participating in beatings and torture.
Estemirova recently documented a surge in house burnings by Chechen security forces to punish families with relatives suspected of being insurgents. Last week, she told how police in the rural area of Kurchaloi had publicly executed a man without bothering with a trial.
"Natalya was always aware how dangerous her work was, but she was very brave, very honest and very diligent," said Lev Ponomaryov, director of the Moscow-based group For Human Rights and a former lawmaker, adding that he was certain who was behind her slaying: "The authorities, or those interested in pleasing the authorities."
Oleg Orlov, chairman of Memorial's human rights center, accused Kadyrov of involvement in the death. "Ramzan had already threatened Natalya and insulted her, and he thought of her as his personal enemy," he said, adding that her killers were trying to "stop the flow of information from Chechnya."
Estemirova is the latest of several Kadyrov foes to turn up dead. Six months ago, Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer active in Chechnya, was gunned down in Moscow. Weeks later, a former bodyguard in exile who had accused Kadyrov of crimes was shot to death in Vienna. Two Kadyrov rivals have also been slain in the past year.
Grigory Shvedov, editor of the Caucasian Knot, a Web site that often published Estemirova's reports, said he hoped her death would prompt Medvedev to remove Kadyrov, who was appointed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He noted that Medvedev replaced the governor of Ingushetia, also a Putin ally, last fall after an opposition politician there was killed. "We need to see if Medvedev has the guts to do the same to Kadyrov," he said.