Will Kremlin Really Investigate Natalya Estemirova's Murder?

Sources in Russian intelligence say the Chechen president ordered her killing.

ByABC News
July 20, 2009, 7:46 AM

MOSCOW, July 20, 2009 — -- The murderers had no fear of the police. Last Wednesday, at 8:30 in the morning, several men abducted human rights activist Natalya Estemirova, who was screaming at the top of her voice, from her house and threw her into a white Lada car waiting outside. Unimpeded by any kind of checks by the authorities, the men drove across the tightly controlled administrative border into the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, about 100 kilometers (63 miles) from the Chechen capital Grozny.

Eight hours later, her body was found there, only about 100 meters (328 feet) off the main highway, with gunshot wounds to the head and chest. It looked as if she had been executed.

Estemirova, 50, was an institution in the Russian-dominated northern Caucasus region. She had worked for the human rights organization Memorial documenting cases of severe human rights violations, which had earned her the hatred of many powerful figures. Before her body was taken to her home town last Thursday to be buried, mourners accompanied the coffin through the streets of Grozny. They carried portraits of the murdered activist and a banner with the words "Who is next?" written on it. Authorities quickly dispersed the small procession, which numbered about 100 people.

Estemirova was a thorn in the side of those in power in Chechnya and Russia. She wrote for Novaya Gazeta, the most outspoken independent newspaper in Moscow. She was a colleague of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, another victim of murder. Estemirova had written repeatedly about the "disappeared" in Chechnya, and about the young men who had been abducted by death squads connected to the security forces.

Courageous human rights activists face constant death threats, both in Grozny and Moscow. Estemirova was also a close associate of Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer who was shot dead in broad daylight in Moscow in January. Russian authorities claim that they have not found any trace of the killers.

Murders, kidnappings and violence are commonplace in the Caucasus. In the first five months of this year alone, security forces recorded 308 "terrorist crimes" in the region, and some 112 "bandits" were "liquidated." In the hope of securing at least partial control over the region, Moscow is pinning all its hopes on the 32-year-old Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov.

In response to the outrage the Estemirova murder triggered abroad, Kadyrov, seemingly with utter conviction, announced that the "terrible crime" would be swiftly investigated and said he would personally see to it that that happened. And then he added: "As determined by the centuries-old traditions and the mentality of the Chechen people, we will also search for the criminals using other, traditional methods -- methods that sometimes prove to be very effective."

Traditional methods? The words sound like they came from a mafia boss, not a president.

Because this way of thinking is typical of Kadyrov, human rights activities and Russian security experts suspect that he has personally ordered contract killings. There have been several shootings of political rivals of the Chechen president, including Ruslan Yamadayev, a former member of the Russian parliament, the Duma, who was shot dead in Moscow in September 2008.

Kadyrov governs Chechnya with a mixture of Stalinist repressive policies and Caucasian vendettas. In a 2005 interview with the pro-Kremlin newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, he admitted that it was his "hobby to kill devils." He employs bloodthirsty mercenaries who feel confident that no police officer or prosecutor would dare bring them to justice -- after all, Kadyrov is a protégé of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the former Russian president. As a result, the northern Caucasus has become a lawless region -- with the Kremlin's blessing. And Kadyrov has become a nightmare for human rights activists.