The Road to Justice

Sidebar: The Unsolved Murder of Natalya Estemirova

Russia’s well-developed security apparatus has the investigative and judicial capacity to prosecute suspects in the 14 unsolved murders of journalists that took place there in the past decade, at least by the account of its own leadership. In a televised announcement in January 2014, Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin boasted that 90 percent of homicides in Russia are solved. It’s true that the Kremlin has made progress, though long delayed, with convictions in the case of Anna Politkovskaya. Yet, in other cases where journalists are the victims, investigations have a tendency to taper off, particularly when they point toward politically uncomfortable suspects. Few cases showcase this pattern more than the murder of the prominent human rights defender and journalist Natalya Estemirova.

Russian Journalist Natalya Estemirova, who was murdered in 2009, had made many enemies among the Chechen top brass. Her colleagues have pressed for investigation of the Chechen leadership as potential masterminds. (Reuters/Dylan Martinez)
Russian Journalist Natalya Estemirova, who was murdered in 2009, had made many enemies among the Chechen top brass. Her colleagues have pressed for investigation of the Chechen leadership as potential masterminds. (Reuters/Dylan Martinez)

Five years have passed without justice since the murder of Estemirova, a contributor to the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta and an advocate for the Moscow-based human rights group Memorial. In lieu of arrests, transparency, or a trial, there have been inconsistencies, questionable theories, and neglected evidence.

Estemirova was abducted near her home in Grozny, in Chechnya, early on July 15, 2009. A few hours later, her body, with gunshot wounds in the chest and head, was found ditched near the Moscow-Baku federal highway in the neighboring region of Ingushetia. Then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s reaction to the killing was prompt. The head of the Russian Federation’s Investigative Committee took the investigation under personal oversight. Igor Sobol, a special investigator with the committee’s central apparatus, was appointed to lead the murder inquiry.

Initially, investigators pursued several lines of inquiry, including the possibility that Estemirova was killed by Chechen law enforcement officials in connection with her reports about human rights abuses in which they were implicated. However, the version on which investigators have since focused blames Chechen militants, thought to have murdered Estemirova “to discredit the Chechen Republic’s government structures,” according to the criminal case file–a theory that does not hold up to scrutiny.

In this account, the motive for the journalist’s assassination was an unsigned report by Memorial pointing to rebel leader Alkhazur Bashayev, a resident of the Chechen village of Shalazhi, as a recruiter of new fighters. The way the investigators on the case would have it, Bashayev, while on the run with a group of militants over the mountains in Chechnya, read the report, identified Estemirova as its author, established her whereabouts, kidnapped her one morning in the presence of eyewitnesses, drove her out of the republic, through a chain of police checkpoints at the border, and executed her in Ingushetia–a curious choice if Bashayev’s goal, as alleged by the investigators, was to discredit the government of Chechnya.

The charges against Bashayev are built on the murder weapon, a pneumatic pistol remade to fire standard bullets, which was found under strange circumstances in Bashayev’s deserted house in Shalazhi village, along with a police identification card with Bashayev’s photo. Police forensic experts later found the ID was falsified and Bashayev’s picture had been affixed to it.

In 2011, Estemirova’s colleagues from Memorial, Novaya Gazeta, and the International Federation for Human Rights published an independent investigation titled “Two Years after the Killing of Natalya Estemirova: Investigation on the Wrong Track.” The report highlighted discrepancies in the official murder inquiry, including evidence taken from the car purportedly used in the killing that showed no sign of struggle and the sudden unwillingness to look further into the role of the police in Chechnya whose involvement in a public execution Estemirova had been investigating before her murder.

According to the materials that were made available to the family, at the start of the inquiry, investigators obtained DNA from under the fingernails of Estemirova–who had apparently fought her kidnappers and killers. DNA tests showed it belonged to four individuals, who have yet to be identified. That lead, however, was never fully followed up. Estemirova’s colleagues later found through an independent investigation that none of the DNA samples collected from Estemirova’s fingernails matched the DNA of the investigators’ chief suspect, Alkhazur Bashayev.

Estemirova made many enemies among the Chechen top brass, who have the support of current President and then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and colleagues have pressed for investigation of the Chechen leadership as potential masterminds. In a statement posted online at the time of Estemirova’s murder, Memorial Director Oleg Orlov said Chechnya’s president, Ramzan Kadyrov, had threatened the journalist. “Ramzan already threatened Natalya, insulted her, and considered her a personal enemy. He has made it impossible for rights activists to work in Chechnya,” Orlov said.

Kadyrov denied responsibility and sued Orlov for defamation.

Estemirova’s colleagues have spent five years challenging the direction of the official investigation. They have made some gains in compelling the Investigative Committee to investigate Chechen law enforcement officials for potential complicity in the murder. After the 2011 independent report was forwarded to President Medvedev and the Investigative Committee, lead investigator Sobol issued some 20 warrants for blood samples from Chechen policemen to compare with the suspected killers’ DNA samples–primarily from those police officers whose names Estemirova had mentioned in her reports about kidnappings, torture, and public executions.

Regrettably, the efficiency of the committee’s efforts ends there. Representatives of the victim have been denied access to the complete case files since the investigation began. Official disclosures about progress in the investigation have been scarce, with the most recent one dated July 2013. It said the investigators still believed Chechen militant Bashayev to be the sole suspect in the murder. The Estemirova case is not on the list of high-priority cases posted to the Investigative Committee’s website, and evidently is no longer under the personal oversight of Investigative Committee Chairman Bastrykin.

In July 2014, not one high-ranking Russian official publicly marked the fifth anniversary of this monstrous killing of a journalist.

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