In the year since former journalist Natalia Estemirova’s abduction and murder on 15 July 2009 in the Russian Caucasus, little progress has been made in the investigation. The impunity that prevails in cases of violence against journalists and human rights activists in Russia seems to have triumphed again.
Reporters Without Borders joins Memorial, the Moscow-based human rights NGO for which Estemirova worked in the Chechen capital of Grozny, in calling on those in charge of the investigation to examine certain hypotheses more closely, especially those linked to her human rights work.
No suspect has yet been identified and key questions remain unanswered. Estemirova’s colleagues fear that the authorities will blame her murder on a deceased “boyevik” (Chechen rebel), thereby dashing any hope of solving the case.
Alexander Cherkasov of Memorial is concerned that the investigators are only considering the hypothesis that the murder was carried out by boyeviki with the aim of implicating Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.
Various Russian media including The New Times and Kavkazski Uzel recently reported that the police could blame her murder on Alkhazur Bashayev, a recruiter for Chechen rebels who was gunned down in November 2009. The reports have yet to receive official confirmation.
If this were happen, the case would be considered solved, Cherkasov said. Bashayev could not be tried (because he is dead) and the possibility that the authorities were involved would (officially, at least) be eliminated.
According to a report by human rights defender Svetlana Gannushkina, the strongest evidence pointing to Bashayev’s involvement was the discovery in an arms cache of the gun used to kill Estemirova together with a forged interior ministry ID card with Bashayev’s photo.
Other hypotheses are no longer being examined. They include the possibility that Estemirova’s murder was carried out by members of the interior ministry (ROVD) in the Chechen district of Kurchaloy in reprisal for being accused by her of Rizvan Albekov’s extrajudicial execution on 7 July 2009. She had expressed concern about this possibility just a few days before her abduction.
President Kadyrov has meanwhile launched a new offensive against Memorial, whose director, Oleg Orlov, was already ordered to pay him 20,000 roubles (450 euros) in damages in October 2009 as a result of a defamation suit. Memorial voiced concern on 8 July that Kadyrov, speaking on Chechen television five days earlier, had described its employees as “enemies of the people, enemies of the law and enemies of the state.” He had referred to Estemirova in similar terms shortly before her murder.
Estemirova displayed extraordinary courage in speaking out about human rights violations in Chechnya, where she had previously covered the armed conflicts as a journalist. She won many awards and was nominated for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize in 2004. She was kidnapped on 15 July 2009 in Grozny and was found dead a few hours later in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia.
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