Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov has won a defamation case against human rights group Memorial and its head, Oleg Orlov. But the trial has given the organisation a chance to address the injustices in the region. Tanya Lokshina reports
A Moscow court has delivered a verdict in the defamation trial against the head of the Russian NGO, Memorial, Oleg Orlov. The victorious plaintiff is the president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, who claims that Orlov damaged his honour and dignity when alleging Kadyrov was responsible for the murder of Natalia Estemirova.
Estemirova, a lead researcher for Memorial in Chechnya, was murdered on 15 July having been abducted in the middle of Grozny. In his press statement in the wake of the killing, Orlov said that Kadyrov was to blame — not for executing the killing or giving the order (the exact identity of the perpetrators and those behind the killing remains unknown), but rather for fostering a culture of lawlessness and violence in Chechnya where law enforcement and security agencies could commit such heinous crimes with absolute impunity. Orlov also claimed that Kadyrov regarded Estemirova as his personal enemy and that he made human rights work in Chechnya impossible.
Kadyrov sued for offence to his “honour and dignity” (a defamation case translates into Russian as a “case for protection of honour and dignity”), so it is ironic that in a Radio Liberty interview on 8 August he called Estemirova a woman “with neither honour, nor conscience, not dignity”.
The president demanded that Orlov and Memorial publish a retraction and pay 10 million roubles (approximately US$333,000) in damages. In the event, the court said Memorial must pay Kadyrov 50,000 roubles (US$1,677) in damages and Orlov an extra 20,000 roubles (US$670.9), with Orlov also obliged to retract his accusation.
When the hearing opened on 25 September, Kadyrov’s lawyer, Krasnenkov, acknowledged that his client was ready to settle for a retraction and drop the monetary claim. Orlov declined. Not that he had a choice, really. He made clear in his statement in court that he had said those accusatory words in earnest with the full backing of Memorial, and his views remained unchanged.
Orlov asked the court to allow six witnesses — colleagues from Memorial and other Chechnya experts — to testify in his defence. Kadyrov presented no witnesses.
Orlov’s one-hour statement in court explained in detail why he had found it appropriate to accuse the president of Chechnya. He quoted Kadyrov’s own speeches in which the Chechen president admitted that he had killed people, called for lawless counter-insurgency measures and promoted collective punishment against relatives of alleged insurgents. He summarised volumes of Memorial’s research as well as the research findings of international human rights NGOs regarding the crimes perpetrated by law-enforcement and security agencies under Kadyrov’s de facto control. And he referred to public remarks by Kadyrov and his closest cohorts about how human rights defenders work to support insurgents and damage Chechnya and Russia.
Orlov’s witnesses continued along the same lines. They spoke of the two extremely hostile personal meetings Kadyrov had with Estemirova, explained how he raised his voice, used offensive language, and made threatening gestures and remarks. They made clear that the only two occasions when Estemirova stayed abroad for longer than a few days was after those two meetings with Kadyrov, in summer 2004 and spring 2008 respectively.
On both occasions Estemirova had to go to a safe country for several months because her colleagues feared for her physical security, and she knew that their concern was well-founded. The witnesses also spoke about their futile efforts to carry on with genuine human rights investigations in Chechnya, where people have been silenced, paralysed by fear of repercussions, no longer daring to take their grievances to court; where local activists stayed away from “sensitive cases” and refrained from any criticism of President Kadyrov, his way of governance, and the actions of his servicemen; where, finally, Estemirova’s friends from a range of Chechen NGOs thought that holding a small memorial event in Grozny on the 40th day since her murder would be “suicidal”.
When explaining to the judge why his client was asking for such a large sum of money in damages, Krasnenkov argued that Kadyrov’s mother had not been able to stop crying since the day she heard her son had been accused of murder. Kadyrov’s little son approached his father after a news broadcast in July and asked, “Daddy, are you really a killer?” This, the lawyer argued, distressed Kadyrov, whom Krasnenkov described as “a caring son and loving father”. The plaintiff also argued that Orlov’s statement caused his image and reputation in Russia and abroad to suffer, alluding to interviews published in the world’s leading media outlets.
Krasnenkov said that Orlov’s argument about human rights work in Chechnya being impossible was nonsensical because he knew several Chechens who came from Moscow to work for Kadyrov and were doing very well. Finally, he hinted that he would not be surprised to find out that Memorial was behind the killing of Estemirova, thus following the guidance of its foreign donors working to destroy Chechnya and Russia. The latter remark seemed to particularly impress all those present in the court room.
The audience was filled to capacity. Many of those who wished to be present did not fit into the cramped, airless court room and had to stand outside for hours, taking turns listening through the cracks in the closed doors. Among those unfortunate ones, there were quite a few journalists who interviewed witnesses such as myself, while they waited to be called upon, and photographed a draft of Orlov’s speech, which I grudgingly passed on to them, though those 10 pages were adorned with my own hastily scribbled comments. A bunch of TV correspondents laden with bulky cameras were shivering in the cold autumn drizzle, waiting in the yard of the court building for Orlov and Krasnenkov to come out during the recess.
In the late afternoon of 25 September, the judge closed the hearing and scheduled the second one for 6 October, to hear more defence witnesses, have the two sides exchange their final remarks, and pass the verdict.
In spite of yesterday’s verdict, that day in court was a victory for Orlov and Memorial. The trial against Orlov felt like a trial against Kadyrov, a unique platform to raise questions about Chechnya under Kadyrov’s governance.
Tanya Lokshina is Russia Researcher for Human Rights Watch