Natalia Estemirova was kidnapped near her home in the capital of Chechnya, Grozniy on July 15, 2009. A few hours later, she was found gunned down in the neighboring Republic of Ingushetia. Her assassination triggered outrage around the world over the plight of human rights in the Russian Federation.
One year later, her murder case remains murky and unsolved.
"The murder of Natalia Estemirova highlights the very real threat, which human rights defenders are facing in the course of their legitimate activities in the Russian Federation," said Nicola Duckworth in a statement, Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia Program director.
Estemirova worked in the Chechen bureau of Russian human rights organization Memorial. She monitored the human rights situation in the republic, including kidnappings, unjust executions, and other crimes committed by police, and she helped victims bring their cases to court. She was the recipient of many international awards for her human rights work.
Since her murder, investigators have identified one Chechen militant suspected of killing Estemirova, according to Memorial. Investigators say that the militant had personally disliked Estemirova because of her reports and wanted to kill her to compromise Chechen authorities. The alleged militant was reportedly killed in a special operation in Chechnya last fall.
Memorial has stated that the theory of a militant disliking Estemirova does not add up since she never reported on him personally. The organization says it is concerned that if the murder is pinned on this militant, the investigation will be closed and her case never solved.
However, in somewhat of a contradiction, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Yekaterinburg, Russia, on July 15, that the killer had been identified and put on an international wanted list, and that the prosecutor’s office was close to announcing the party that ordered the murder.
Merkel is currently touring Russia, Kazakhstan, and China to strengthen trade partnerships.
“It is of immense importance that those guilty of this heinous crime are brought to justice—and not only the actual killers, but also those who ordered the assassination,” said Thomas Hammarberg in a statement, commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe.
“The Russian government must demonstrate forcefully that it is prepared to protect human rights defenders … not only in words but also by way of concrete actions,” said Hammarberg.
After the assassination, Memorial called their staff in Chechnya back to Russia because of potential threats. It resumed its work December last year. Nonetheless, the organization said that the Chechen leadership was still threatening them because of their work.
In the interview to Grozniy TV on July 3, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov condemned Memorial’s human rights advocacy work, saying that they were “traitors” who only worked in the interest of Western donors.
“What have they done for the republic? They receive a large salary from the West and to report about their activities they write any dirt and trifle on the Internet. … They are public enemies, the enemies of law, and the enemies of government,” he said in the interview translated into Russian.
The Kremlin-backed Kadyrov also called Natalia Estemirova a "woman without honor and shame" in an interview given on August 2009.
Russian and international human rights organizations hold Kadyrov responsible for the persecution of dissidents and human rights activists in the Chechen Republic and accuse him of imposing an authoritarian regime in the country. Kadyrov’s portrait hangs everywhere in Chechnya in an atmosphere reminiscent to Soviet times.
“Chechen society is absolutely broken down and can’t protect itself,” Estemirova once said in an interview with Amnesty International.