Prominent reporter abducted, murdered in Chechnya

New York, July 15, 2009–Today’s brutal murder of prominent journalist and human rights activist Natalya Estemirova, at left, in Chechnya must be thoroughly investigated immediately, the Committee to Protect Journalists said.

Estemirova, 50, was abducted this morning in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, as she was leaving her apartment for work, Reuters reported. She was found shot in the head and the chest in the neighboring region of Ingushetia at around 5 p.m., according to international news reports.

Estemirova was an activist with the Moscow-based human rights group Memorial and a consultant for the New York-based international rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW). She was a frequent contributor to the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta and the Caucasus news Web site Kavkazsky Uzel. As she uncovered massive, ongoing human rights violations in Chechnya by the federal and regional authorities, Estemirova was often at odds with Chechen authorities, according to her colleagues.

President Dmitry Medvedev condemned the murder in a statement from his office and ordered Russia’s Investigative Committee to conduct a thorough probe.

“We are deeply shocked by the murder of Natalya Estemirova and send our condolences to her family and friends,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “President Medvedev must make good on his promise to investigate this shocking killing by ensuring that the inquiry is thorough and transparent. The killers of this courageous reporter, one of the few left in Chechnya, must not be allowed to walk free like so many before them.”

Four men pushed Estemirova into a car when she was leaving her apartment for work in Grozny, The Associated Press reported. CNN quoted Oleg Orlov, the head of Memorial, as saying that Estemirova was overheard yelling, “This is a kidnapping.” She was found shot to death in a neighboring region of Ingushetia later in the day. Orlov told the Russian service of the U.S.-backed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that Chechen authorities were behind the murder of his colleague.

Tanya Lokshina, HRW’s Russia researcher, told CPJ that Estemirova was a threat to Chechen authorities because of her fearless reporting on ongoing human rights violations in the region over the last decade. “Natalya was the only remaining source of credible information on Chechnya for rights groups and journalists, including prominent journalist Anna Politkovskaya,” Lokshina said. “Now I am afraid there will be a vacuum because there is no one to step in.” Estemirova had contributed recently to HRW’s report on punitive burnings of houses by the regional authorities in Chechnya.

Novaya Gazeta reporter Elena Milashina told CPJ that “Natasha never reported on the stories she did not check–she personally traveled inside Chechnya to talk to people, and people trusted her only.” Estemirova reported on extrajudicial killings, abductions, and punitive arsons for Novaya Gazeta; after a wave of threats from the Chechen authorities, she wrote under a pseudonym, Milashina said.