People pray at the burial of Natalya Estemirova in Chechnya July 16, 2009. (AP/Musa Sadulayev)
People pray at the burial of Natalya Estemirova in Chechnya July 16, 2009. (AP/Musa Sadulayev)

Three years on, Natalya Estemirova’s murder unsolved

Three years ago this week, Natalya Estemirova, a contributor to the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta and a local staffer for the Moscow-based rights group Memorial, was murdered in the North Caucasus, Russia’s volatile region, where she was famous for her work as a defender of human rights. 

On the morning of July 15, 2009, Natalya left her apartment building, located in one of Grozny’s residential areas, and headed to the bus stop to go to work. On her way, two unknown men, clad in camouflage uniforms, snatched her and shoved her into their car. (The official investigation would later determine that two other men and a woman were also involved in Estemirova’s abduction.) She managed to scream that she was being kidnapped. At least one witness saw the incident as it unraveled, but would later be too fearful to testify.

At 4:30 pm that day, Natalya Estemirova’s lifeless body, pierced by five gunshots, was discovered in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, on the side of a highway connecting Russia’s city of Rostov and Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku.

The first people to learn about Estemirova’s abduction were her colleagues at the Grozny office of Memorial. They rushed to her apartment block and interviewed Natalya’s neighbors. Memorial’s Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya, who was at the scene, told CPJ: “People were afraid to talk to us, and only one woman said that Natalya was abducted. But she categorically refused to name herself or tell us her address.”

Three years after the murder, investigators have failed to identify or collect testimony from this and other witnesses of Estemirova’s abduction.

The execution of the most prominent rights activist in the Caucasus sparked an outcry at home and abroad. Aleksandr Bastrykin, head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, the agency tasked with solving serious crimes in the country, declared he would personally oversee Estemirova’s murder probe. Russian authorities also formed an investigative group and put Igor Sobol, chief investigator with the Investigative Committee’s Main Directorate for the Southern Federal District, in charge of the probe.

Among the lead motives investigators initially considered in Estemirova’s killing was her professional activity as a journalist and human rights defender, including the possibility that she was murdered by local police officers angered by her exposés of human rights abuses in which they were implicated.

After the 2006 killing of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya, Natalya Estemirova was the only reporter who openly criticized Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and his circle, and reported on human rights abuses committed by Chechen law enforcement. She was also the only critical journalist who lived permanently in Grozny despite threats and warnings she received regularly in connection with her work.

Despite the possibility that Chechen police could be involved in Estemirova’s murder–and the resulting conflict of interest–local police officers were included in the group formed to investigate her killing. It was Chechen police officers who conducted all forensic activities in the case, and who came up with an alternative alleged motive for Estemirova’s killing–the one that, eventually, would become the official lead. According to that version, it was a Chechen guerrilla fighter, Alkhazur Bashayev, who allegedly killed Estemirova because he was angered that she was looking into reports that separatists were recruiting young men from the village of Shalazhi.

During the last weeks of her life Natalya Estemirova worked on several high-profile cases of abduction and extrajudicial executions of Chechen citizens; she suspected local law enforcement and security services were involved in the crimes. Estemirova made several public statements on these cases, and she helped the victims’ relatives file complaints before the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights.

A July 17, 2009, New York Times report said that three months before her murder, Estemirova had been summoned for questioning by Chechen police, “an incident that so worried her co-workers at Memorial that they reported it to the Council of Europe.” The Times also said a meeting took place between Estemirova’s Moscow-based Memorial supervisor, Oleg Orlov, and Nurdi Nukhazhiyev, the pro-Kadyrov Chechen human rights ombudsman. Speaking five days before Estemirova was killed, according to the account, Nukhazhiyev told Orlov that high-ranking officials were “extremely dissatisfied” with Memorial’s most recent investigations.

At the beginning of the investigation into Estemirova’s murder, head detective Sobol made attempts to look into all murders and abductions she had reported on. However, those efforts did not bring results because of widespread fear of giving testimony among Chechen residents. In August 2009, Bastrykin publicly spoke of the difficulties his agency encountered in Chechnya: “Investigating cases, including the murder of Natalya Estemirova, is extremely difficult. A lot of people are afraid to cooperate with the investigation,” he said.

Despite the apparent conflict of interest, Bastryin’s office transferred cases alleging involvement of Chechen law enforcement and security agents in criminal activity–those same cases that Estemirova had been investigating prior to her murder–to the jurisdiction of none other than the Chechnya branch of the Investigative Committee, according to reporting by Novaya Gazeta.

How effective could local investigators be in those cases? The record does not bode well. Three weeks after Estemirova’s murder, human rights activists Zarema Sadullayeva and Alik Dzhabrailov were detained by Chechen law enforcement agents at their office, with witnesses present, according to an August 2011 report by Memorial. The next day, the activists’ maimed bodies were found in the trunk of a car in one of Grozny’s districts. In a separate case, in October 2009, another Chechen human rights activist, Zarema Gaisanova, disappeared during a special operation that Ramzan Kadyrov personally headed, the independent news website Civitas reported. No one has been arrested in these murders.

These crimes entirely paralyzed the work of journalists and rights organizations in Chechnya. The impunity heightened fear among local residents, who stopped seeking help from rights activists, reporters, and law enforcement alike. Silence and fear have become the fundamentals of the so-called stability in Kadyrov’s Chechnya.

Against this backdrop, an objective and thorough official investigation into Estemirova’s murder is a daunting task.

According to the official version, Estemirova was killed by guerrilla fighter Bashayev on the orders of notorious Chechen Islamist militant Doku Umarov, who is often termed Russia’s Osama Bin Laden. Umarov’s motive for the murder, the official version goes, was to disrupt negotiations between Russia’s then-president, Dmitry Medvedev, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Bashayev reportedly received a payment of US$14,000 from Umarov for the hit. However, a money trail was never established; instead, the payment allegation was made in testimony by a former Chechen guerrilla fighter by the name of A.S. Bakarov, who is imprisoned for a different crime. Bakarov’s testimony is among the materials of the investigation into Estemirova’s murder, which were obtained by Novaya Gazeta and Memorial.

The key evidence presented by investigators in Estemirova’ case is a weapons stash that Chechen police claimed they found in Bashayev’s home in the village of Shalazhi. Among the stash, Chechen investigators said, was the Estemirova murder weapon as well as a forged police identification bearing Bashayev’s picture, according to an independent investigation by Memorial, Novaya Gazeta, and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). Chechen police also claimed they had found the car used for Estemirova’s abduction; inside the vehicle, they said, was a silencer the killers used on the murder weapon, according to the materials of the official investigation.

However, not a single forensic exam has confirmed the authenticity of these items claimed to be evidence. On the contrary, analyses commissioned by Sobol himself have questioned the validity of the items submitted as evidence by the Chechen police, the Memorial, Novaya Gazeta, and FIDH investigation found.

In their report, the groups criticized investigators for focusing solely on the Bashayev lead at the expense of other key leads–such as the possibility of involvement of Chechen law enforcement officers in Estemirova’s slaying.

The Bashayev lead, moreover, is a dead end because of the uncertainty of the guerrilla fighter’s fate. According to a 2009 report by Chechen authorities, Bashayev was killed in a special operation; however, as recently as June 2012, Bastrykin told journalists that Bashayev was believed to be hiding in Belgium.

CPJ repeatedly sought an interview with head investigator Igor Sobol for an update on the Estemirova murder probe, to no avail. When approached in early July with questions on the status of the investigation, Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin turned down the request. A colleague of Markin’s did inform CPJ, however, that, “due to his excessive workload,” Sobol is to transfer Estemirova’s case to another investigator.

As in other cases, including the high- profile probes into U.S. Editor Paul Klebnikov’s murder and the brutal beating of Kommersant business daily reporter Oleg Kashin, such reshuffles spell one thing and one thing alone–the burying of the cases for good.