Case History: Natalia Estemirova
On 15 July 2009, Natalia was abducted from her home in Grozny. A few hours later her body was found in neighbouring Ingushetia. Previous threats made against both Natalia and the organisation she worked for, Memorial, combined with the circumstances of her murder, point to possible government or official involvement in her killing. HRDs and investigative journalists in Chechnya often face many forms of threats and intimidation.
Natalia Estemirova was a prominent human rights defender and journalist in the troubled Russian republic of Chechnya. She was board member of the Russian human rights organisation Memorial, that focuses on documenting the Soviet Union's totalitarian past, but also monitors human rights in Russia and other post-Soviet states.
On 18 March 2016, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, has published his written observations submitted to the European Court of Human Rights on a case concerning the killing of prominent Russian human rights defender Natalia Estemirova.
Observing that the murder of Natalia Estemirova should be viewed on the backdrop of a broader pattern of intimidation of human rights defenders in the North Caucasus and, in particular, the Chechen Republic, the Commissioner underscores the Russian authorities’ failure to prevent and react appropriately to these violations. “The absence of requisite determination on the part of the authorities has been one of the main obstacles to pursuing accountability, in violation of the state’s procedural obligations” he writes.
The authorities of the Russian Federation on both federal and regional level must adopt a series of measures at institutional, legal and political levels to increase the safety of human rights defenders. In particular, they should adopt a specific legal framework, a comprehensive public policy and a national action plan aimed at protecting human rights defenders at risk and at promoting an enabling environment for their work. Such measures may also include the creation of a special body or empowering existing national human rights institutions with a view to installing, in cooperation with federal law-enforcement bodies, a fully-functional rapid response mechanism or a protection programme for human rights defenders. Finally, these measures should also include an awareness-raising policy promoting the legitimacy and facilitating the work of human rights defenders.”
Third party interventions represent an additional tool at the Commissioner’s disposal to help promote and protect human rights. The European Convention on Human Rights foresees these interventions which are based on the Commissioner’s country and thematic work. They do not include any comments on the facts or merits of the case, but provide objective and impartial third-party information to the Court on aspects of concern to the Commissioner.
To read the Commissioner's written observation, please visit the Council of Europe website.
Human Rights Center Memorial issued a statement on the complaint lodged by the relatives of the murdered human rights activist Natalia Estemirova to the ECHR.
On 8 September 2011, deputy head of the department of the Prosecutor General's Office Aleksey Vasilkov said that the murder of the human rights activist Natalia Estemirova, happened on July 15, 2009, is solved. HRC "Memorial" and Estemirova's relatives suppose that the prosecution doesn't have any grounds to state that.
September 9, lawyers from HRC "Memorial" (Moscow) and European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (London) and the lawyer of victim's family Roman Karpinskiy applied to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). They lodged a complaint against the failure to carry out an effective investigation of the case, which violates Art. 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Particularly the applicant's legal representatives (Estemirova's relatives, who were recognized as an aggrieved party) have been denied access to the criminal case files. This does not allow the applicant to influence the criminal investigation in order to raise its effectiveness.
Earlier HRC "Memorial", "Novaya Gazeta", and International Federation for Human Rights presented a report "Two Years after Natalia Estemirova's Murder: Investigation in the Wrong Direction" - in Russian) in which they criticized the official version of the murder.
The Russian authorities have made little attempt to effectively investigate possible involvement by local officials in the July 2009 murder of the prominent human rights advocate Natalia Estemirova, Human Rights Watch, Civil Rights Defenders, Front Line Defenders, Amnesty International and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said today, on the second anniversary of her death.
The organizations, citing a new independent report detailing severe problems with the government’s inquiry, reiterated their call for a thorough, impartial, and transparent investigation and the prosecution of those responsible.
“Two years after Estemirova’s murder, there are more questions than answers about the circumstances surrounding her killing,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Russian authorities need to deliver justice in Estemirova’s case to demonstrate their sincerity about protecting human rights in Chechnya and throughout the North Caucasus.”
Estemirova, a researcher for the Russian human rights group Memorial on human rights abuses in Chechnya, was abducted outside her home in Grozny on the morning of July 15, 2009. Her body was found in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia later that day. She had been shot.
Chechen authorities, including President Ramzan Kadyrov, had publicly criticized her relentless reporting of rampant human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, and enforced disappearances by the Chechen government. The circumstances of Estemirova's death and the threats against her and others point to possible official involvement in or acquiescence to her murder.
Despite repeated reassurances by the Russian authorities that Estemirova’s case was practically solved, the investigation appears mired in official findings that she was killed by Chechen insurgents in retaliation for having exposed some of their crimes. On July 14, the Memorial Human Rights Center, the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and Novaya Gazeta published a report on shortcomings in the government’s investigation.
They found, for example, discrepancies in the evidence taken from the car purportedly used in the killing, a failure to collect DNA samples from a broader range of suspects in Chechnya, and an unwillingness to look into a possible role by the Kurchaloi district police. The Kurchaloi district police had been implicated in an extrajudicial execution Estemirova had exposed in the weeks before her murder.
Threats and harassment against human rights defenders in Chechnya have increased since Estemirova’s murder, and the working environment remains very hostile. Three weeks after she was killed, Zarema Sadulaeva and Alik Djabrailov, activists with "Save the Generation," a local nongovernmental organization, were also abducted in Grozny and murdered. The investigation into their killing has not yielded tangible results.
Staff members of the Joint Mobile Group of the Russian Human Rights Organizations in Chechnya (Mobile Group), established in November 2009 with lawyers and others from throughout Russia to work in Chechnya on a rotating basis, have been threatened on numerous occasions. Earlier in July, police in Grozny warned two local activists working closely with the group to discontinue their work. In February 2010, three of the group’s staff were arbitrarily detained by police authorities in the Shali district of Chechnya. They were unlawfully kept in custody overnight, and some of their equipment was confiscated or damaged. The responsible officials have not been held to account.
The Mobile Group is the recipient of the 2011 Front Line Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk and the 2011 Human Rights Prize of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
“The Mobile Group essentially picked up the mantle of Natalia Estemirova as it is now handling the most sensitive human rights cases in Chechnya,” said Mary Lawlor, Front Line Defenders director. “We are immensely concerned about security for its staff on the ground.”
“The situation for human rights defenders in Chechnya is no better today than it was two years ago,” said Nicola Duckworth Europe and Central Asia Director at Amnesty International. “The authorities must demonstrate a sincere commitment to the defense of human rights defenders; this cannot be done without effective investigations into past killings.”
The Russian government has obligations under both domestic and international law to investigate Estemirova's case effectively and prosecute all those responsible, regardless of rank or position, the five organizations said. The standards for such investigations have been elaborated by the United Nations through the UN Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions, the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, and other expert manuals and writings.
The investigation should thoroughly examine possible official involvement in Estemirova's murder, at all levels of government, the group said. It should not exclude the possibility of involvement of the republic’s leadership, which has been implicated in other cases of retaliation against those who expose abuses in Chechnya, made threatening statements to Estemirova and other Memorial staff, and fostered an atmosphere of impunity for law enforcement and security forces.
“Estemirova exposed horrific abuses by military and law enforcement personnel at great personal risk,” said Marie Manson, program director for Civil Rights Defenders. “The Russian authorities need to fully investigate possible involvement of Chechen officials who may have seen her work as a threat, and may have been involved in her disappearance and murder.”
A year after the murder of Ms. Natalia Estemirova, leading researcher in Grozny's office of the Human Rights Centre “Memorial”, Front Line, the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), express their deep concern about the inefficiency of the investigation into Ms. Estemirova’s assassination as well as about the safety of human rights defenders in the Russian Federation, and particularly of members of HRC “Memorial” working on and in the Republic of Chechnya.
Our organisations recall that Ms. Natalia Estemirova was kidnapped and murdered on July 15, 2009. One year later, the investigation is still ongoing without yielding any visible results.
At the end of June 2010, a well-informed source in Chechnya warned the web-agency "Caucasian Knot" that the Chechen militant Alkhazur Bashaev, who was killed as a result of a special operation in November 2009, may be announced by the investigation as the murderer of Ms. Estemirova, on the argument that the reason for her murder could possibly be the fact that Mr. Bashaev was mentioned in a report issued by HRC “Memorial”. On July 8, 2010, during a press-conference held in Moscow regarding the state of investigation into Ms. Estemirova’s assassination, prominent Russian human rights defenders heavily criticised the lack of transparency and seriousness in the examination into the case. Similarly, the Observatory and Front Line fear in case that the version of the involvement of the killed militant is privileged, the enquiry would most likely be curtailed and the real perpetrators and sponsors for the crime would not be identified and brought to justice.
In parallel, since Ms. Natalia Estemirova's assassination, some of her colleagues have continued to receive threats by both unidentified actors and authorities because of their legitimate human rights work. Most recently, on July 3, 2010, in an interview on the TV channel Grozny, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov labelled members of HRC “Memorial” as enemies of the people, declaring that (…) They are getting big salaries from the west and in order to report on their activities they write all kinds of nonsense and filth on the Internet. That is why they are not my opponents. They are the enemies of the people, enemies of the law, enemies of the state. In this interview, Mr. Kadyrov specifically targeted Mr. Oleg Orlov, Chairman of the Executive Board of HRC Memorial”, as well as employees of the HRC Memorial office in Gudermes.
Following the broadcast of this interview, HRC “Memorial” expressed fears for the safety of human rights activists working in Chechnya, stating that In today’s Chechnya this public statement by the President of the Chechen Republic sounds like a direct and clear threat. Republican officials and personnel of security services will take these words of Ramzan Kadyrov as an instruction to act against HRC Memorial and its representatives. Some of them can take these words of their leader as an announcement that HRC Memorial members are outlaws, with all the ensuing consequences''.
Moreover, on July 6, 2010, Mr. Oleg Orlov was summoned and charged with the criminal offense of “libel”. These criminal proceedings against Mr. Orlov are related to the criminal lawsuit for “libel” that Mr. Ramzan Kadyrov initiated against him after the publication of a statement on July 15, 2009 in which Mr. Orlov indicated he believed Mr. Kadyrov was responsible for Ms. Natalia Estemirova’s murder. Mr. Orlov and HRC “Memorial” were already sentenced on October 6, 2009 by the Civil Court to fines for “defamation”, in a civil action initiated by Mr. Ramazan Kadyrov, on the basis of the same statement by Mr. Orlov.
Our organisations are revolted by the fact that instead of looking for the real perpetrators and sponsors of the murder of the prominent HRC Memorial researcher, Mr. Kadyrov continues to pressure the organisation and its representatives by resorting to both judicial harassment and threatening statements, which put them in imminent risk amid the climate of impunity that prevails in the Republic of Chechnya.
“We are appalled by the fact that in the Russian Federation, the only judicial response brought by the authorities to the murder of our friend and colleague one year after the crime is the judicial harassment and intimidation of those who continue her work”, the Observatory and Front Line declared today. “We completely support HRC Memorial's opinion that it is not possible to speak seriously about the investigation into Natalia's assassination without studying through the cases of most serious human rights violations she was working on. It has to be remembered that the perpetrators of the crimes she worked on are still not brought to justice”.
This alarming situation is reminiscent of the first six months of 2009, when the authorities of the Chechen Republic gradually intensified their public verbal attacks against human rights defenders. This climate led to the killing of Ms. Natalia Estemirova on July 15, 2009 and of Ms. Zarema Sadulayeva and her husband Mr. Alik Dzhabrailov, members of the NGO “Save the Generation”, on August 9, 2009, who also remain unsolved as of today. Following these murders, HRC “Memorial” suspended its work in the Chechen Republic for five months and several human rights defenders were forced to leave Russia due to threats on their lives.
Front Line and the Observatory express their utmost concern with the current situation of human rights defenders in the Russian Federation and believe that Mr. Ramzan Kadyrov's public statements of hostility towards Russian civil society activists incite hatred and might encourage further acts of violence and harassment against human rights defenders in Chechnya.
The Observatory and Front Line therefore call on the Russian authorities to:
- Guarantee in all circumstances the physical and psychological integrity of all HRC Memorial members as well as all human rights defenders in the Russian Federation and members of their families;
- Carry out an immediate, effective, thorough, independent and impartial investigations into all the killings of human rights defenders in the Russian Federation, including those of Ms. Natalia Estemirova, Ms. Zarema Sadulayeva and Mr. Alik Dzhabrailov in Chechnya, the result of which must be made public, in order to identify all those responsible, bring them before a competent, independent and impartial tribunal and apply to them the penal sanctions as provided by the law and in accordance with international standards, in particular Article 9.5, of the United Nations (UN) Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which states that “the State shall conduct a prompt and impartial investigation or ensure that an inquiry takes place whenever there is reasonable ground to believe that a violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms has occurred in any territory under its jurisdiction”, as well as to the UN Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions;
- Immediately put an end to any threat and act of intimidation and harassment - including at the judicial level - against human rights defenders in Chechnya in particular, and in the Russian Federation in general, and guarantee in all circumstances that they are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals and free from all restrictions;
- Ensure in all circumstances respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with international human rights standards and international instruments ratified by the Russian Federation.
Five months ago the human rights community in Russia and beyond lost a friend and colleague, Natalia Estemirova, Memorial's lead researcher in the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation. After her murder on July 15, 2009, Memorial suspended its work in the republic. Since that time, the authorities in Chechnya have continued to intimidate and persecute human rights defenders and those who seek justice for abuses; several were forced to leave Russia due to threats to their lives.
As a result, victims of human rights violations in Chechnya have nowhere to turn. There continue to be reports of human rights abuses such as enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment, and extrajudicial executions. Houses of families of alleged fighters are being burnt down. The perpetrators of such crimes continue to enjoy impunity.
The vacuum of human rights monitoring and reporting in this situation is significant and painful. In November, a letter sent by more than 80 Russian human rights organizations urged Memorial to return to Chechnya and pledged to support Memorial in whatever way they could. Several of these organizations have joined together to form a Monitoring Mission in Chechnya and recently began to work in the Chechen Republic.
Today, 16 December 2009, Memorial, represented by Oleg Orlov and Sergei Kovalev, as well as Ludmila Alekseeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group, received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of thought, awarded by the European Parliament. We can only be saddened that our friend and colleague Natalia Estemirova is no longer alive to receive this honour.
In his Nobel Prize speech, Andrei Sakharov said “we must today fight for every individual person separately against injustice and the violation of human rights. Much of our future depends on this.”
We, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, FIDH, Memorial, Civil Rights Defenders and Moscow Helsinki group will work jointly with Russian and other international human rights organizations to monitor the situation in Chechnya. We consider monitoring and reporting on human rights violations in the Chechen Republic as our common responsibility. We will continue our work to end human rights violations in the republic and ensure that perpetrators are held accountable. People in Chechnya must not be left without access to justice and redress.
Front Line is deeply saddened by the killing of human rights defender Ms Natalia Estemirova, member of the Grozny office of the Human Rights Centre Memorial, who was abducted and murdered by armed men on 15 July 2009. Natalia Estemirova was an award winning human rights defender who had continued to document human rights violations in Chechnya and speak out on behalf of victims and their families in the face of repeated death threats and harassment.
"Natalia was a beacon of hope for so many amidst the ongoing violent repression in Chechnya," said Front Line Director, Mary Lawlor, " and when she spent time with us in Dublin we came to know and respect not only her dedication and bravery but her deep humanity. She is a huge loss not only to Russia, but to the human rights movement around the world."
Natalia Estemirova had been working on extremely sensitive cases of human rights abuses, investigating hundreds of cases of alleged kidnappings, torture and extra-judicial killings by Russian government troops or militias in Chechnya. She worked closely with other reporters, including Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in 2006, and wrote articles on human rights violations committed in Chechnya for the renowned newspaper “Novaya Gazeta.”
On 15 July 2009, Natalia Estemirova was abducted at around 8.30 am near her apartment building in Grozny. According to testimonies of several witnesses, she was seized by several armed men who drove a white VAZ-2107 model car. As she was pushed into the car, she managed to shout that she was being kidnapped. According to the staff members of Memorial, Natalia Estemirova was on the way to a business trip to the Stavropol region of Russia. Her colleagues started to worry when she didn't arrive at the scheduled meetings. The same day at approximatively 5.20 pm, Natalia Estemirova was found dead near Nazran in Ingushetia with evidence of two shots to the head.
On the evening of 15 July 2009, Memorial issued a statement in which its chairman, Oleg Orlov, accused the President of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, of involvement in the murder of Natalia Estemirova. The Memorial statement also alleged that President Kadyrov had previously threatened Natalia with death and underlined that Memorial had been aware that their latest communications “concerning new abductions, unlawful execution and the public killings in one of the Chechen villages provoked the anger of high level Chechen officials.”
Front Line believes that Natalia Estemirova was killed because of her peaceful and legitimate human rights work in particular her defence of victims of human rights abuses in Chechnya. Front Line is gravely concerned that the murder of Natalia Estemirova forms part of an ongoing pattern of extrajudicial executions of human rights defenders in Russia which have been carried out with almost total impunity.
The murders of human rights defenders, Mr Stanislav Markelov, Ms Anastasya Babyrova and Mr Magomed Yevloyev in the last 12 months illustrate the vulnerability and the lack of protection of Russian human rights defenders. Front Line welcomes the condemnation of this brutal killing by President Kadyrov. However, in response to his statement that he "will take personal charge of the investigation," Front Line stresses the importance of an independent impartial investigation into the death of Natalia Estemirova.