Mourners hail slain Chechen activist

WEEPING mourners walked through Chechnya’s capital yesterday to honour activist Natalya Estemirova, whose brazen kidnapping and execution-style killing shocked Russia’s beleaguered human rights community and prompted international outrage.

In Moscow, Russia’s leading rights advocates blamed Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed president for the killing. They also said Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shared responsibility for the slaying and for the lawlessness plaguing the North Caucasus region. “They have killed our soul,” said Oleg Orlov, head of the Memorial rights group that Estemirova worked for.

Estemirova’s gunshot body was found on Wednesday, hours after she was kidnapped by four men not far from her home in the Chechen capital of Grozny.

The killing, which activists blamed on Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, underscored the persistent crime and violence in the regions surrounding Chechnya. Rights groups said it also showed Russia remains a place where political murders are committed with impunity. “A terror campaign is being conducted in Russia – terror against people who dare say things that are uncomfortable and unpleasant for the authorities, who talk about the crimes of those in power,” Orlov said.

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev said Estemirova was killed because of her work investigating abductions, killings and rampant rights abuses in Chechnya since the beginning of the second war there, in 1999. But he dismissed suspicions that Kadyrov was behind the murder, saying the killers likely intended that government officials be blamed.

“This provocation, if you want to call it thus, this crime, I am sure the person who committed it will be punished,” Medvedev said.

In Grozny, about 100 mourners gathered to remember Estemirova outside Memorial’s office, some weeping.

“What for? What for?” said Taus Dzhankhotova, 50, crying. “They kill only the good people here. If she was bad, they wouldn’t have touched her.”

Russian and international rights groups expressed outrage over the killing – the latest in a string of murders targeting journalists, lawyers and activists critical of the Kremlin’s policies in the war-torn North Caucasus.

The 50-year-old single mother had worked with two other top rights activists who also had been slain, lawyer Stanislav Markelov and reporter Anna Politkovskaya. She had collected evidence of rights abuses in Chechnya since 1999 when the province’s second separatist war began after the 1991 Soviet collapse.

She was a key researcher for a recent Human Rights Watch report that accused Chechen authorities of burning more than two dozen houses in the past year to punish relatives of alleged rebels.


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