Out of sight
The murder of Natalia Estimerova was a stark reminder of the dangers human rights workers in Chechnya face when trying to draw attention to the region, writes Memorial's Dokka Itslaev
28 Aug 09

Natalya_EstemirovaThe murder of Natalia Estimerova was a stark reminder of the dangers human rights workers in Chechnya face when trying to draw attention to the region, writes Memorial’s Dokka Itslaev

On 27 August, the Moscow Times reported that human rights workers — and journalists covering them — were increasingly reluctant to carry out their work in the troubled republic. This followed Novaya gazeta ’s decision on 12 August to withdraw their reporters from Chechnya.

Akhmed Gisayev is the latest employee from the human rights organisation Memorial to come under threat. Giyasev, who worked with murdered activist Natalia Estemerova investigating human rights violations, was said to have been harassed and under surveillance by the security service during the third week in August. This followed the shocking murders of three human rights workers in July and August.

On 15 July 2009 Memorial activist Natalia Estemirova was abducted in Grozny. On the same day, her corpse was found in Ingushetia, one of Chechnya’s neighbouring republics in the North Caucasus, bearing signs of a violent death. Estemirova was one of Memorial’s key representatives in Grozny, deeply involved in the issue of human rights violations in Chechnya. The international media frequently published commentary and reports from her on the situation in the North Caucasus. It is plain to her colleagues that Estemirova’s murder stemmed from her professional activity, including, perhaps to a great extent, her strong media presence. For Natalia was not only a human rights activist, but also a hardworking journalist. Indeed, several days before her murder, Chechnya’s human rights commissioner Nurdi Nukhazhiyev summoned the head of Memorial’s Grozny office and explicitly indicated that the Chechen authorities were deeply unhappy with Estemirova’s repeated insistence to wash their “dirty linen in public”, referring to Estemirova’s articles and interviews for various publications.

Up to the time of her murder, Natalia Estemirova had been working personally on a number of new cases of abduction, murder and torture in Chechnya. Chief among them was the case of Rizvan Albekov and his son Aziz Albekov from the village of Akhkinchu-Borzoi, who had been abducted on 7 July 2009 from Dzhugurty village, Kurchaloyevsky district, in the Chechen Republic, allegedly by officers from the local district police department. Several hours later, armed men accused Rizvan Albekov of assisting the rebels and publicly executed him in the centre of Akhkinchu-Borzoi. Natalia Estemirova not only publicised this case, she also tried hard to get the authorities to institute criminal proceedings and to punish the perpetrators.

The second case was no less high profile: the abduction of Zelimkhan Khadzhiyev and Apti Zaynalov in Grozny on 28 June 2009. Thanks to Estemirova’s efforts, this case also reached the public eye. Chechen Memorial members found Zaynalov in the district hospital on 3 July 2009. He had been subjected to severe torture and was being treated for his injuries.

Natalia tried ceaselessly to secure Zaynalov’s release and bring about a criminal investigation into his torture and unlawful detention. On 7 July, Estemirova and Zaynalov’s mother visited the public prosecutor for Achkhoi-Martanovsky district and demanded the release of the detainee and punishment for the offenders. On that very day, however, the security forces moved Zaynalov to a hidden location.

Following the murder of Estemirova, Zelimkhan Khadzhiyev was released. It seems the circumstances of his abduction were so scandalous that once they were under the spotlight, the local security forces were left with no option but to free him.

Over recent months the Chechen authorities have repeatedly proclaimed that Chechnya is the safest, most stable region in Russia, that abduction, murder and torture are a thing of the past. However, information published on various websites illustrates the exact opposite to be the case. In 2009, kidnappings have risen almost twofold compared with 2008. This information is supported by concrete examples from the reality of everyday life in Chechnya. Estemirova’s murder was an attempt to shut a window on to the horrific events taking place in Chechnya, and to stop information about these events getting out.

To put the rest of the human rights activists in their place, to show who really ordered and executed this crime, to display their power and impunity, the criminals kidnapped Natalia in broad daylight, took her through several checkpoints into the neighbouring republic and killed her in a busy and accessible location, not far from the Kavkaz highway.

On 10 August, Zarema Sadulayeva, head of the organisation Let’s Save the Generation, and her husband Alik Dzhabrailov were taken by unidentified men at 2pm from the organisation’s Grozny office. About half an hour later, the criminals returned and took away Alik Dzhabrailov’s car and the couple’s telephones and computer. These events took place, again, in a busy area, not far from Memorial’s office.

The following morning, Zarema and her husband’s corpses were found in Grozny. During the ritual washing of Zarema’s corpse, it emerged that she had been killed in the same way as Natalia had, with shots to the head and heart. As usual, the authorities have put forward a number of theories about what happened. Many people are wondering why Zarema and her husband were chosen this time. Whom could Zarema have offended, with over 100 operations on sick Chechen children to her name? Perhaps only the criminals can be sure what motive moved them to carry out this heinous crime. Yet some of the circumstances would suggest that their killing was a continuation of the crime committed against Natalia. After her murder, Memorial suspended its work in Chechnya. The organisation intended to return to the question of possible work in the region at the end of August. But those who ordered the hit on Natalia did not welcome Memorial’s return. They would only start “washing dirty linen in public” once again. When the situation is seen from this perspective, those who murdered Zarema Sadulayeva and Alik Dzhabrailov had a clearly defined goal: to secure the curtailment of the activities of independent NGOs in Chechnya, once and for all curing the problem of news leaking from the region. Certain people now want Chechnya to have an Iron Curtain. And the assassinations of Natalia Estemirova, Zarema Sadulayeva and Alik Dzhabrailov bear the same signature: abduction in broad daylight, in a busy city, and death by gunshots to the head and heart.

Dokka Itslaev is director of the Chechnya branch of Memorial and researcher for the Russia Justice Initiative

Translation by Anna Gunin