Three down, none left: who will defend human rights in Chechnya?

According to the Amnesty researcher on Russia talking to me yesterday, there used to be three key people when it came to uncovering human rights violations in Chechnya. These were the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the lawyer Stanislav Markelov, and the human rights researcher Natalia Estemirova. Used to be … because they're all dead.

It was the same Amnesty researcher who called me one quiet weekend afternoon nearly three years ago to say that former Amnesty media awards winner and fearless investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya had been murdered. My Amnesty colleague sounded shocked – hollow-voiced, sort of hopeless-sounding. She sounded like this again yesterday. Natalia Estemirova had just been killed.

Natalia Estemirova was a researcher for the Russian NGO Memorial who specialised in documenting kidnapping and killings across the North Caucasus (watch this video interview about her work she did with Amnesty not long ago). It is of course bleakly ironic that she herself was abducted from the streets of the Chechen capital Grozny yesterday morning and by the afternoon was found dead in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia. Her body had multiple gunshot wounds. If her killers had hung a notice around her neck saying “Beware human rights groups!” the message couldn't have been any clearer.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is “outraged” at Estemirova's murder and has ordered an investigation, while Timur Aliyev, an adviser to the Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, put a local spin on his reaction by saying that it is “outright tragic that this happened now, when the situation in Chechnya is stabilising.”

Perhaps both Medvedev and Aliyev are absolutely sincere but forgive me for being sceptical. Those that try to get to the bottom of human rights abuses in Russia (never mind Chechnya) have frequently been warned off with death threats, physical attack and, in several cases, have wound up dead after clinical hitman-style killings”. Medvedev will know all this – indeed several have been killed on his watch – and his outrage looks pretty synthetic against this background.

Meanwhile, Aliyev's “things are stabilising here now” line is very much the official one of “normalisation” being trotted out by the Chechen authorities. Only recently Amnesty was showing that this was nonsense in a 48-page report (see this earlier post for the true abnormality of Chechnya) and as if to reinforce the point there have been a spate of violent incidents in the North Caucasus in recent weeks.

In one of those baleful and truly sad co-oincidences, today's excellent BBC Radio 4 strand “Crossing Continents” has an investigation into a new pattern of killings of women in Chechnya, apparently for reasons of “morality” or “honour”. It features a contribution from …. Natalia Estemirova. Now Natalia Estemirova is dead, who will defend human rights in Chechnya?

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