Sign up for weekly updates

Human rights defender brutally murdered

Natalia Estemirova
Natalia Estemirova

Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center

Natalia Estemirova, an award-winning activist and journalist dedicated to exposing the human rights abuses of Russian authorities and security forces in Chechnya, was brazenly abducted and shot to death last week. The assassination was reported on by the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations (CJES) Human Rights Watch (HRW), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and several other IFEX members.

On 15 July, four men forced Estemirova into a vehicle outside her apartment in a densely populated neighbourhood in the Chechen capital of Grozny. "This is a kidnapping!" she screamed, according to witnesses. Eight hours later, her body was found with gunshot wounds to the head and chest in a forested area in the neighbouring region of Ingushetia.

Estemirova, 50, worked as a researcher in the Grozny office of Memorial, Russia's leading human rights NGO. She was also a frequent contributor to the Caucasus news website "Kavkazsky Uzel" and the independent newspaper "Novaya Gazeta".

"She believed that the determination and courage, persistence and fearlessness of those who are unprepared to reconcile themselves with lawlessness would prevail," wrote CJES. "Her latest article was published after her death. She gave up her life for that."

Estemirova aided several international organisations in their research in the region. At the time of her death, she was collaborating with Human Rights Watch on a report investigating the recent upsurge in extrajudicial executions, house burnings and arbitrary detentions in Chechnya. She was also a trusted source for journalists known for her diligence. She frequently collaborated with journalist friend Anna Politkovskaya, who was slain in 2006 for reporting gross human rights violations of security forces in Chechnya. On 25 June, Russia's Supreme Court overturned the acquittal of four suspects in Politkovskaya's killing and ordered a re-trial.

On the day she was killed, Estemirova was scheduled to be interviewed by France 24 about her investigations into the killings, disappearances and torture of Chechen separatists and their relatives - crimes allegedly attributed to employees of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, according to the news agency.

Despite spurring vocal condemnations of governments, NGOs and journalists across the world, Estemirova's death has received scant coverage in the Russia's mainstream news, says RSF, which adds that Russian newspapers and television channels have come under increasing state ownership and influence over the past decade.

A single mother, Estemirova leaves behind her 15-year-old daughter. She is the recipient of the Human Rights Watch Defender Award (2007), the Anna Politkovskaya prize (2007), the Robert Schuman Medal of the European Parliament (2005), and the Swedish Parliament prize for "Right to Survival" (2004).

Human Rights Watch reports that Estemirova's murder follows three other recent broad daylight executions of critics of government and military actions in Chechnya. "It seems to be open season on anyone trying to highlight the appalling human rights abuses in Chechnya," said Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch.

Last month, an IFJ report was released that followed up on the murders of journalists in Russia since 1993. The report, "Partial Justice," states many of the 124 journalist deaths in this period may have been as a direct result of their work. Of the 10 cases of journalist killings that were brought to trial since 1997, only two led to the imprisonment of those responsible, the research found.

Memorial has closed its office in Chechnya, for safety reasons and out of protest, according to Reuters.

A statement last week by IFJ affiliate, the Russian Union of Journalists, summed up the sentiment of free expression organisations across the globe. "The murder of Natalia Estemirova leaves us feeling angry and helpless," it said.


Latest Tweet:

Montenegro jails organised crime reporter Jovo Martinović on dubious charges of drug trafficking and membership of…

Get more stories like this

Sign up for our newsletters and get the most important free expression news delivered to your inbox.