16 July 2009, 17:00

NORWEGIAN HELSINKI COMMITTEE: In Memory of Natalia Estemirova

Oslo, 15 July 2009

Today, on July 15, 2009, our esteemed colleague and friend Natalia Estemirova of the Memorial Human Rights Centre was found murdered in Ingushetia. She had apparently been killed by one or more gun shots to the head. Natalia leaves behind a daughter of 16.

According to eye witnesses, Natalia was abducted this morning close to her house in Grozny, Chechnya. At around 08:30 AM she was grabbed and taken into a white car, bearing the tags VAZ-2107. She managed to shout that she was being abducted. An unidentified woman, who probably tipped off the kidnappers, had followed Natalia from the entrance of her apartment complex to the place where she was abducted.

Natalia Estemirova was one of Russia's most prominent human rights defenders, and a recipient of numerous international awards, including the Robert Schumann Medal, which the European Parliament awarded her in 2005. She was the first recipient of the Anna Politkovskaya Award in 2007. She had been working closely with Ms Politkovskaya until the latter's assassination on 6 October 2006. After Politkovskaya's killing, Ms Estemirova continued to document human rights violations in Chechnya, although she received numerous threats. Chechen authorities publicly expressed their displeasure with her work.

Her death sends a stark signal to human rights defenders in Chechnya and throughout Russia: Individuals standing up against the system of impunity currently in place in the North Caucasus are risking their lives. The people of Chechnya have lost one of the bravest defenders of their rights, Memorial Society one of their most distinguished colleagues.

The brazen abduction and killing of Ms Estemirova is part of a larger pattern where critics of the Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov are killed. People who have documented the crimes of Mr Kadyrov and his security forces, like Ms Politkovskaya and the lawyer Stanislav Markelov, who was assassinated in January, and witnesses who have made allegations against Mr Kadyrov, like Magomed-Salakh Masaev, who was abducted and subsequently disappeared in Grozny in August 2008, and Umar Israilov, who was assassinated in Vienna in January this year, have ended up being murdered. Similarly, several of Mr Kadyrov's political rivals have been assassinated in Russia and abroad. None of these crimes have been solved.

We are concerned that the death of Natalia Estemirova shows that Chechnya is ruled by a criminal regime which stops at nothing to suppress dissent and accountability. This is not a Chechen issue, or a North Caucasian issue, but a Russian issue. Mr Kadyrov was appointed President of Chechnya by the former Russian President Vladimir Putin and is a protege of the Kremlin. The persecution of Russian human rights defenders must have consequences for Russia. Impunity for crimes in the North Caucasus must not be complemented by political impunity on the international stage.

Supporting the Russian human rights defenders, and especially the staff of Memorial Human Rights Center, is one way of honoring the memory of Natalia Estemirova, who gave her life in the struggle for accountability and justice in Chechnya.

On behalf of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee,

Bjorn Engesland                       
Secretary General                       

Aage Borchgrevink
Cell: +47 907 51 150

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