Lucy Popescu

Natalia Estemirova

Many readers of Literary Review will be shocked and saddened to learn of the brutal murder of award-winning Russian human-rights activist and freelance journalist, Natalia Estemirova, on 15 July 2009. In these pages I wrote about the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead on 7 October 2006, her body found slumped in an elevator outside her apartment in Moscow. No one has yet been brought to justice for her murder and now, almost three years later, we are mourning the loss of another courageous writer who has been silenced.

Estemirova worked with Memorial, one of Russia’s best-known and oldest human-rights groups. She was a close friend and colleague of Politkovskaya, and they investigated some of the same cases together. Estemirova was half-Russian and half-Chechen, and had often interpreted for Politkovskaya. In October 2007, she came to England to accept the inaugural Anna Politkovskaya Award from the Reach All Women in War campaign group, an award established to honour female human-rights defenders from conflict zones who stand up for the victims of conflict, often at a great personal risk.

On the morning of 15 July, Estemirova was reportedly seized by four unknown men as she left for work and was bundled into the back of a white car. Neighbours at her house in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, heard her shout: ‘I’m being kidnapped.’ Later her body was found dumped on the main road of a village in Chechnya’s neighbouring republic, Ingushetia. She had been shot in the head and the chest.

There are many similarities between the lives and deaths of these two courageous women. Both were investigating human-rights abuses in Chechnya. Both would listen to the stories of Chechen victims, who would tell them how their relatives had been shot by the troops of Ramzan Kadyrov (the president of Chechnya), or had been kidnapped and tortured, or had just disappeared. Both wrote articles for the independent Moscow-based paper Novaya Gazeta, well known for its critical coverage of Russian political and social affairs, and collaborated with human-rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Both were scathing critics of Kadyrov, who is a close ally of Vladimir Putin. Their murders bear all the hallmarks of contract killings, and in both cases their colleagues have pointed the finger at Chechnya’s president.

In 2008, Estemirova left Chechnya for four months following a heated exchange with President Kadyrov. He was angry that she had challenged his order that women should wear headscarves in public in the predominantly Muslim territory. According to The Times, she told colleagues that she no longer felt safe. ‘Kadyrov directly threatened her and she took it seriously,’ said Oleg Orlov, the head of Memorial. ‘She agreed it was best to leave, but after a while she felt things had calmed down so she wanted to get back.’ At the time of her death, Estemirova was documenting the rise in kidnappings and extrajudicial executions in Chechnya. 

Following two bloody wars with Chechnya, in 2003 Russia succeeded in installing a pro-Moscow Chechen regime under Akhmad Kadyrov that lasted until his assassination in 2004. His son, Ramzan Kadyrov, eventually succeeded him, becoming President of Chechnya in February 2007. Amnesty has published a horrific list of human-rights abuses that have taken place in Chechnya, including extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and abductions, torture in unofficial detention centres and arbitrary detention. It is these abuses that Estemirova and Politkovskaya were so intent on bringing to the world’s attention. After Orlov alleged that Kadyrov was Estemirova’s murderer at a press conference, the Chechen president responded swiftly by denying any involvement and announcing that he would sue the human-rights organisation over its claims. 

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), seventeen journalists have been murdered for their work or have died under suspicious circumstances in Russia since 2000. In only one case have the killers been convicted, and the orchestrators of the crimes remain unpunished. Four journalists have been killed in the opening months of 2009 alone.

When President Medvedev came to power he pledged to enforce the rule of law by investigating crimes against the press. But according to CPJ, attacks on journalists continue unchecked. In the past year, CPJ has documented work-related violence against nineteen journalists in various parts of the country. 

Readers can write abhorring the murders of Russian journalists and human-rights activists; seeking assurances that there will be a thorough and impartial investigation into the murder of Natalia Estemirova and that those found responsible will be brought to justice; condemning the high levels of violence against journalists in Russia; and urging the Russian authorities to condemn all attacks on the independent press and to take urgent measures to ensure the safety of journalists. Address appeals to: 

His Excellency Yury Viktorovich Fedotov
Embassy of the Russian Federation in the United Kingdom
13 Kensington Palace Gardens
London
W8 4QX
Email: office@rusemblon.org
Fax: +44 (0)20 7727 8625 

Reach All Women in War, who awarded Estemirova the inaugural Anna Politkovskaya award, is collecting comments and messages of support on its website:

http://www.rawinwar.org/content/view/83/197/. Please add your voice. 

To send messages of solidarity to Memorial, email info@memo.ru

Update: On 11 August, Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced to a further eighteen months house arrest. Readers might like to send appeals protesting the sentence to His Excellency U Nay Win, Embassy of the Union of Myanmar, Fax: +44 (0)20 7629 4169 / melondon@btconnect.com

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