'There is State Terror in Russia'

Colleagues of murdered human rights activist speak out.

July 16, 2009, 12:04 PM

MOSCOW, Russia, July 16, 2009— -- In the wake of the brutal slaying of Russian human rights activist Natalya Estemirova, colleagues have blasted the Russian government for not doing enough to protect rights workers in Russia.

One called the routine threats to activists "state terror" and another accused Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of being partially responsible for Estemirova's murder.

"Let's call things what they are, there is state terror in Russia," said Oleg Orlov, the head of Memorial, Estemirova's organization.

Orlov, along with many others, accuse 32 year-old Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov and his forces of being behind the murder. Kadyrov is a notoriously brutal leader, a former warlord who is backed by the Kremlin and suspected in the murders of several other rights activists.

"We know about killings in Chechnya and beyond. Those who try to speak the truth and criticize power are killed. Authorities on all levels threatened Natasha [Estemirova's nickname] more than once, but she couldn't see herself not working in her homeland, in Chechnya."

Alekseeva Ludmila, a famous activist who heads of The Moscow Helsinki Group, went a step further, saying of Putin and the Chechen president he selected, Ramzan Kadyrov, "I blame both of them for involvement in the killing."

Putin's spokesman denied the accusation, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who was said to be "outraged" by the murder, rejected the accusations of Kadyrov's involvement.

"Those who committed this wrongdoing did so precisely in order to hear instantly the theories which are the most primitive and unacceptable for the authorities," Medvedev said in a press conference in Munich.

For his part, Kadyrov has promised to bring the killers to justice and said that those accusing him are trying to discredit Chechnya and Ingushetia, where Estemirova's body was found.

Natalya Estemirova Murder Sparks Outrage

Government officials and Estemirova's colleagues agree that it was her work that led to her death, though investigators say they're studying all possible motives. Friends and colleagues gathered in Moscow this afternoon for a press conference, expressing skepticism that there would be justice at the end of the process.

"The track record [in Russia] is atrocious; the track record is that no one has been held accountable for any of the murders of human rights activists or journalists over the last few years," Allison Gill, an American working with Human Rights Watch, told ABC News.

"There's a lot of work to do before that track record is improved, and that means holding somebody accountable."

"Natasha's murder was so brazen and has touched so many people that it will be a kind of call to arms or a wake-up call to those who care about what happens inside Russia, including the Russian authorities who first and foremost bear the responsibility for upholding the rule of law in this country," Gill added optimistically.

The head of Russia's Investigative Committee flew to Chechnya today to start the investigation, and a spokesman for the Interior Ministry promised it would do everything in its power to solve the crime.

Estemirova had worked with Memorial since 2000, investigating and documenting kidnappings, assassinations and other human rights abuses across the North Caucasus region along Russia's southern border.

The day she was murdered, a report Estemirova contributed to came out calling for officials, including Putin, to be held accountable for crimes committed while they were in office.

Estemirova's body has now left Grozny and will be buried near her father in the village of Kochkeldy.

"Natasha was the soul of our organization, and it means that they killed our soul," said Orlov. "It is awful, the loss is irreplaceable."

Tanya Stukalova contributed reporting

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events