In October 2007, Russian human rights activist Natalya Estemirova wrote for us about the assassination of the crusading investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
Today, Estemirova was assassinated.
Her body, dumped near the capital city of Ingushetia, was discovered with two close-range bullet wounds in the head.
A woman who courageously investigated kidnappings, killings and other rights abuses in Chechnya, a single mother in her early 40s, a leading member of the esteemed human rights group Memorial, Estemirova received the first annual award from the international human rights group RAW in WAR (Reach all Women in War) in October 2007.
She understood, as she wrote in her harrowing story about Anna Politkovskaya's confrontation in Chechnya with a notorious police official responsible for the imprisonment, torture and murder of Chechen civilians that: "There are those with a vested interest in keeping the Russian Abu Ghraib forgotten–so that they can once again kidnap and torture. Our task, however, is to uncover their deeds and to fight them. Anna was at the forefront of this work for many years."
Natalya Estemirova was also at the forefront of that dangerous work, never ceasing to expose human rights abuses committed by the brutal leadership in Chechnya, where she lived and worked. Members of Memorial are now saying what they feared to say before, out of concern for Natalya's safety. They are accusing the 32-year old leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, of involvement in her assassination.
"Ramzan Kadyrov is personally responsible, not only because he leads Chechnya," said Oleg Orlov, Memorial's chairman. But, because "he personally threatened Natalya, told her that her hands would be covered in blood and that he destroys bad people." Kadyrov leveled these threats, according to Orlov, when he dismissed Estemirova as head of the Grozny Human Rights Public Council last year. Kadyrov has not replied to accusations that he was involved. What is clear is that the two bloody wars Moscow has fought with Chechnya, (from 1994 to 1996 and starting again in 1999) to halt the Muslim republic from seceding in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse, have led to tens of thousands of civilian deaths, mass disappearances and killings, and rampant corruption. Putin installed Kadyrov as the republic's president in 1994 and his regime has been notorious for its corruption and human rights abuses.
For journalists, Russia has become –according to the International Union of Journalists–one of the most dangerous countries to work in. More than thirty journalists have been murdered for their work or have died under suspicious circumstances since Boris Yeltsin came to power; the pattern continues under Vladimir Putin and Dmitrii Medvedev. In only one case have the killers been convicted.
After learning of Estemirova's killing, President Medvedev issued a statement condemning the murder and ordered Russia's Investigative Committee to conduct a thorough probe. Kadyrov released a statement on Wednesday night saying he would "spare no expense: to find her killers.
The leading opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta has paid the heaviest price for its crusading investigations into high-level corruption, human rights violations, and brutality in Chechnya. Three of its leading reporters, including Anna Politkovskaya, have been murdered for their unflinching investigations. Most recently, 25-year old freelance reporter for Novaya, Anastasiya Baburova — who was covering the rise of race-motivated crimes and Neo-Nazi groups — was gunned down on a Moscow street. (There is no progress to report in her case.) And Estemirova was a frequent contributor to Noyava, reporting on extrajudicial killings, abductions and punitive arsons; after a wave of threats from the Chechen authorities, she wrote under a pseudonym. Despite the physical threats, assaults, and financial and political pressures, the newspaper's reporters and editors have continued to remain independent and publish crusading investigative reporting.
The issue of impunity for violent crimes against journalists is a matter of international importance. Deadly violence against journalists in Russia — and in all countries, has led to self-censorship, leaving issues of global significance under reported or entirely uncovered.
Today we honor the courage of Natalya Estemirova. She tenaciously exposed human rights abuses and was a powerful voice for justice in her country.
Those who have so brutally stifled her voice must be brought to justice.