CPJ seeks thorough investigation into Estemirova murder

New York, July 15, 2010—On the first anniversary of the brutal murder of prominent journalist and human rights defender Natalya Estemirova, the Committee to Protect Journalists calls on Russian authorities to thoroughly probe professional motives and aggressively pursue all suspects in the killing. Estemirova, left, who for 10 years documented the human toll of the conflict in Chechnya, was found shot to death in Ingushetia after being kidnapped from her Grozny home a year ago today. 

For months, concern has been mounting over a seeming lack of political will to solve Estermirova’s murder. In February, a top investigator with the Investigative Committee of Russia’s Southern Federal District, the agency in charge of the probe, said publicly that authorities had identified a primary suspect, although he did not identify the individual. The investigator, Igor Sobol, was also quoted in The New York Times as saying that his office had “objective grounds to identify a group of people” who took part in the crime. CPJ called on the Investigative Committee at the time to further publicize its progress, but no other developments were disclosed.

Today, at a press conference during a summit in Yekaterinburg with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that the investigation in Estermirova’s murder is going “at full speed” and a suspected killer had been placed on an international wanted list, the news agency ITAR-TASS reported. Medvedev did not name the suspect.

Colleagues and friends of Estemirova, who have had access to some investigative materials, said they were confused by the president’s statement. Estemirova’s supervisor at the human rights organization Memorial, Oleg Orlov, told the news agency Interfax: “I don’t understand what this is about. According to the materials of the investigation the [suspect] has been killed; how can he be on arrest warrant?”

On July 12, the independent Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta published a detailed piece criticizing the official investigation. The article—written by reporter Yelena Milashina and headlined “Command to Liquidate”—details numerous apparent flaws in the official probe: a failure to interview witnesses to Estermirova’s kidnapping; a failure to place at-risk witnesses under protection; and a failure to carry out a thorough analysis of DNA samples collected from the victim’s body. The piece also criticized investigators for allegedly focusing on a single suspect who is now dead.

Novaya Gazeta reprinted a March 31 Investigative Committee document that names Chechen guerrilla fighter Alkhazur Bashayev and “other unidentified persons” as kidnapping and killing Estemirova. Multiple local press reports have said Bashayev was killed during a police operation in November 2009.

“We are gravely concerned that a year after the brutal murder of our colleague Natalya Estemirova, not only haven’t her killers been brought to justice, but the investigation may be going on the wrong track,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “We call on Igor Sobol and his investigative team to publicize the results of their probe so far in its entirety, and to focus on Estemirova’s professional activity as a motive. Investigators have an obligation to identify and apprehend all suspects, including the mastermind, in this awful crime.”

In her July 12 piece, Milashina detailed the many highly sensitive cases—including civilian kidnappings and extrajudicial killings in Chechnya—that Estemirova had documented just before she was murdered. Milashina also noted that Estemirova’s work had been met with official hostility, particularly from Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.

Even now, Milashina wrote, hostility remains. She cited a July 3 television interview in which Kadyrov called human rights defenders in general, and Memorial activists in particular, “enemies of the people, enemies of the law, enemies of the state.”