One year after the assassination of Ms. Natalia Estemirova: Investigation reaches a standstill, human rights defenders in Chechnya continue to face serious threats

Press release
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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.

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