Who shot Russian human-rights campaigner Natalia Estemirova?

In all probability, nobody will ever be brought to justice for the murder of yet another Russian human-rights campaigner

It should have been a brief trip. Last Wednesday, Natalia Estemirova, known to her friends as Natasha, left her flat in the Chechen capital, Grozny, and set off towards the bus stop. Usually, it took her 15-20 minutes to get to work – a bumpy ride in a shared No 55 mini-van, down an avenue of green tower blocks, past giant posters of Chechnya's warlord president Ramzan Kadyrov, and several of Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin.

On this occasion, she didn't make it. A hundred metres beyond the entrance of her 10th-floor flat – which overlooks a patch of grassy wasteland and a grove of shabby walnut trees – four gunmen were waiting. They grabbed Estemirova, bundled her into a white Russian-made Zhiguli car and drove off. A woman passer-by saw the abduction and heard her cry out.

It was 8.30am. Her kidnappers headed in the direction of Ingushetia, Chechnya's neighbouring republic. Probably, they took the M-29 highway, though there is also a grassy back-route looping along a hillside. The road is a scenic one: it cuts though a dark tunnel of poplar trees; on the roadside women sell melons from the backs of trucks. The kidnappers breezed through several checkpoints.

Two hours later, Estemirova was dead. The men stopped their vehicle soon after crossing into Ingushetia. Up ahead, a group of Islamist militants had ambushed a government car, opening fire. Estemirova's kidnappers may at this point have panicked. They marched her, hands tied, off the road. And then they shot her five times in the head and chest – leaving behind her money, passport and ID card.

This was no robbery. Instead, her friends believe it was something else: a vile, cowardly, meticulous, state-sponsored execution, apparently designed to send a chilling warning to the small, dwindling number of activists still working in Chechnya, Russia's rogue republic. Last week, Estemirova's colleague Oleg Orlov certainly felt in no doubt as to who killed her.

Her death was both appalling and predictable. She was the latest human-rights campaigner of international renown to be gunned down in Putin's Russia. In October 2006 an assassin shot dead the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, Estemirova's friend and close collaborator. Politkovskaya was a frequent guest at her modest Grozny flat. Another visitor to her flat was Stanislav Markelov, a 34-year-old lawyer with an impish sense of fun, who worked with Estemirova representing Chechen victims. In February he was gunned down in central Moscow, a short stroll away from the Kremlin. Killed with him was Anastasia Baburova, a freelance journalist for Novaya Gazeta newspaper. And then, last week, it was Estemirova's turn – the next obvious target.

Even now, her friends still find it hard to comprehend her murder. "She was an amazing and inspiring person with an obsessive and unstoppable desire for justice," her colleague Tanya Lokshina, from Human Rights Watch in Moscow, says. "She was nice and funny, always smiling, always well dressed despite her small salary, and somewhat coquettish."

Since 2000, Estemirova had been working in Grozny for the Russian human-rights organisation Memorial. According to Lokshina, she knew the risks she was running. "After Stas [Markelov] was murdered she flew to Moscow for the funeral. She and I sat up until late at night talking about the situation. We asked ourselves: 'Who is going to be next?' Natasha was next."

Estemirova wouldn't have been surprised by her own kidnapping and violent death, Lokshina says. A historian by training, her job as Memorial's leading Grozny-based activist was to document and publicise abuses carried out by Chechen law enforcement and security agencies, under Kadyrov's de facto control. By fixing, by recording, by naming, she sought to establish a higher truth in a region shattered by conflict and moral breakdown.

Every day a queue of women would turn up at her office, just off Grozny's main Putin Avenue. (After Kadyrov renamed the street last year in creepy homage to Russia's prime minister, Estemirova refused to even walk on it, her daughter Lana recalls.) There, they would tell their stories – of relatives shot by Kadyrov's troops, missing sons who popped out and never came back, of houses torched by masked gunmen in uniforms. Estemirova would immediately fire off a letter to the local prosecutor.

At a time when the world stopped listening to Chechnya's woes, Estemirova stayed on in Grozny. She continued to highlight extra-judicial killings, disappearances, torture and other crimes. She wrote reports for Memorial, and articles in Novaya Gazeta. She collaborated with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. She was an invaluable source of information for western journalists who – in the last few years – were visiting Chechnya with embarrassing infrequency.

Inevitably, this led to confrontation with Kadyrov, Chechnya's thuggish tsar. A former rebel turned loyalist, Kadyrov has pioneered his own Kremlin-approved mini-Stalinist regime in the Muslim republic – the scene of two Moscow wars from 1994 to 1996 and 1999 to 2004. So numerous are his portraits, driving through Chechnya feels a bit like travelling through a giant version of Kadyrov's family photo album.

Critics acknowledge that Kadyrov has presided over the republic's spectacular reconstruction, with much of war-smashed Grozny rebuilt. At the same time, he has made Chechnya into a lawless personal fiefdom. His violent tactics – dressed up as anti-terrorist operations – are used not just against the unknown number of Islamist insurgents still holed up in Chechnya's forests and mountains, but are also employed against the wider, terrified, innocent civilian population.

In the run-up to her murder, Estemirova received threats from senior aides of Kadyrov. In March 2008 Kadyrov summoned her to a meeting at which he expressed extreme dissatisfaction with her work and her opposition to his new edict forcing women to wear headscarves. According to Orlov, head of Memorial, Kadyrov told her: "Yes, my hands are up to the elbows in blood. And I am not ashamed of that. I will kill and kill bad people." Estemirova was unimpressed and she ticked him off.

"I know that she had threats. She didn't tell me about this but I knew it," Estemirova's 15-year-old daughter Lana says, speaking from her aunt's home outside Grozny, where relatives gathered last week to mourn Estemirova's murder. Next door, a group of women sit on the carpet, from time to time erupting into howling and sobbing; others serve up plates of lamb and watermelon.

The activist was buried last Thursday in the village cemetery. (Earlier, police broke up a funeral procession in the centre of Grozny by locals protesting at her murder. Some carried banners asking: "Who is next?") Her grave sits on a grassy hillside. It is a quiet spot. Her father is buried nearby; white butterflies flutter among the Islamic headstones; a light breeze blows.

Lana adds: "I never told her to leave her job. I knew it was important for all the people. She didn't live for herself. She didn't live for me. She lived for those who needed her help." According to Lana, she never travelled with bodyguards and paid scant attention to her personal safety. "Her only concern was for me. If I missed her call or had my phone on vibrate she would say: 'Are you crazy? It breaks my heart when you don't pick up.'"

After her encounter with Kadyrov, and following consultations with Memorial, Estemirova left Chechnya for several months and went to live in her home city of Yekaterinburg. She later returned to Grozny. Last summer she and Lana travelled to Oxford – a period her friends say was the happiest of her life. In Oxford she managed to escape the horrors of Chechnya. She studied English, did yoga and went for long walks in the university parks. One friend described her as "glowing".

For Lana it was a rare moment in which she had her mother to herself: "I loved Tate Modern. She loved the National Gallery. She didn't like my rock music. But we agreed on impressionism and classical music."

She adds: "Even now I can't believe this has happened to me. I didn't look at her when she was dead. It was only when I saw her body [at the funeral] that I realised I would be alone, and that I would never see her again in this life."

Friends tried to persuade Estemirova to extend her stay in the UK. She refused. She returned to Grozny in September 2008. "It was almost as if Natasha had a religious sort of a calling, even though she considered herself an atheist," Lokshina says. "After all the horrors she had seen in two wars she just could not imagine that God existed, because if he did he would never have allowed anything so cruel, violent or nightmarish."

Estemirova's husband died during the first Chechen war – at around the time she decided to abandon her job as a history teacher and to embark on a career as an activist and journalist. She lived with Lana in a small Grozny flat filled with books, her international prizes, and a fluffy cat, Vanessa. There were also two budgerigars. "If not for her daughter she was almost like a classic nun," Lokshina says.

In April the Kremlin cancelled its counter-terrorist regime in Chechnya. This was an important moment, marking a formal end to an on-off war against separatists and radicals of various Islamic tinges that had lasted for 15 years. In reality, however, the Kremlin is facing serious problems in nearby Ingushetia, the scene of daily attacks on government forces, and the epicentre of a pan-Islamist uprising spilling across the entire North Caucasus region.

The federal government in Moscow responded to this threat by giving Kadyrov enhanced powers over Chechnya and Ingushetia. According to Shakman Akbulatov, Estemirova's co-worker in Memorial's Grozny office, the cancellation saw a spike in human rights abuses over the last two-and-a-half months. Suddenly, Estemirova found herself deluged with new cases, as Kadyrov's forces abducted civilians – in some cases murdered them – and subsequently branded them as militants.

One case she investigated was that of Madina Yunusova, a 20-year-old woman whose husband was killed on 2 July in a special operation in the village of Staraya Sunzha, not far from Grozny. Officials claimed, implausibly, she had fired a Kalashnikov and was involved in a plot to kill Kadyrov. Yunusova was injured in the shoot-out but survived. She then died in mysterious circumstances in hospital.

What followed was a classic example of collective punishment. On 4 July, at 3am, men in camouflage fatigues arrived at Yunusova's parents' home in the town of Argun. According to neighbours, they set light to it, locking the family in a shed. Yesterday the house was deserted. Burned clothes lay in the garden, next to a plot of yellow dahlias. The Yunusovs had fled. Their flip-flops sat in the front porch, underneath a vine trellis; peering through a broken window you could make out a blackened bedroom and charred mattress.

Estemirova's colleagues are clear that her death was a punishment for her professional activities – and her desire to help people like the Yunusovs. "It was done to silence her," Akbulatov says, speaking in Memorial's office, a colour photo of Estemirova tacked to the wall. The office has now temporarily closed, while Memorial reviews its activities in Chechnya. "She was as brave a person as you can imagine. She knew it was very dangerous." What is unclear is why Estemirova's enemies chose last week to kill her.

Did her recent on-going investigations trigger alarm at the top of Chechnya's government? Or is there a link with president Dmitry Medvedev's statement on 14 July, the day before her murder, that federal forces should be involved in counter-terrorist operations in Chechnya and Ingushetia – an apparent rebuke to Kadyrov, whose own forces have masterminded operations? Could Russia's sinister FSB spy agency be involved?

Kadyrov's response was characteristically wheedling. Speaking hours afterwards, he denied involvement and described her murder as a "monstrous crime". Her death, he suggested, was an attempt to "discredit" Chechnya and Ingushetia and "trample its peoples in the mud". Human rights activists now fear that Kadyrov will shortly claim that the perpetrators of her murder have themselves been killed, precluding the need for further investigation.

In contrast to his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, who chose to ignore then downplay the death of Politkovskya, Medvedev reacted swiftly last week, amid international outrage. In a telegram to Memorial, he promised that Estemirova's death would be investigated "in a most careful manner". Depressingly, however, Medvedev also ruled out Kadyrov's guilt, describing this possibility as "primitive and unacceptable".

Human-rights campaigners are deeply sceptical that the investigation into her death will uncover the truth behind her killing. Nobody has been held to account in similar cases. The trial of four men accused of involvement in Politkovskya's murder was "a farce", Estemirova said at the time. All were acquitted and investigators have failed to identify the mastermind behind her murder. Kadyrov denied involvement, saying, "I don't kill women."

As for Estemirova, "There are very solid grounds to believe there was governmental involvement," Lokshina says. "Natasha publicised and documented human rights abuses perpetrated by Chechen law enforcement and security agencies. For them she was definitely an enemy. These are the ones who wanted her silenced. She really was the only Chechen activist to tackle these outrageous cases."

Lana, meanwhile, now wants to leave the country. First Anna, then Stas and then her mother – within three years all of them have been murdered, seemingly by the Russian state, or by dark forces connected with it. "I'll take my mother's books, a few of her dresses, and give the rest to poor local people." Next door, the howling begins again. "My tears are finished," she says •


Luke Harding

The GuardianTramp

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