Natalia Estemirova moved to Chechnya in the late 1980s and remained there throughout the political instability, before 1994 and after 1996, and the two armed conflicts with the authorities in Moscow (1994-1996, 1999-2009). Estemirova first worked as a schoolteacher but the increasingly lawless situation led her to form bonds with those who were trying to defend human rights in the small North Caucasian republic, and to use television and other media to document and describe the situation there. During the first conflict (1994-1996) this meant the rights activists grouped around Memorial; during the second conflict, when independent journalists and outside rights activists were largely prevented from gaining access to Chechnya, this meant a few individuals like Anna Politkovskaya and the locally-run offices of Memorial which she now headed in Chechnya.
Estemirova’s work stretched over more than a decade, documenting the many murders and disappearances of people in the North Caucasus. She revealed the work of the “Eskadrony smerti” or death squads and collected evidence proving these squads were the work of the state security services’[i]. Her friendship with Anna Politkovskaya was widely known and the two women worked together on many occasions to document the Chechen conflict and human rights abuses. After Politkovskaya’s death, Estemirova continued to work undaunted.
Estemirova was kidnapped on 15 July 2009 near her home in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya and later found murdered that day in Ingushetia, near the village of Gazi-Yurt with two gunshot wounds to the head.[ii] When she was kidnapped in the middle of a busy street during morning rush hour, Estemirova shouted out her name and that she was being kidnapped, begging onlookers to call and report this to Memorial [iii]. Nevertheless, according to journalist Fatima Tlisova, “No one helped her; no one reported. People were too scared. They didn’t want to be known as witnesses.[iv]”
In the course of her work she aroused the hostility both of the Chechen authorities and the Russian Federal Forces. Like Anna Politkovskaya before her and Khadjimurad Kamalov two years later it was, perhaps, a wonder that an attempt was not made to silence her before. Natalia Estemirova documented hundreds of cases of abuse in Chechnya. Increasingly, as control of Chechnya passed into local hands, her work for Memorial concentrated on human rights violations by government-backed militias.[v]
In an extraordinary effort to support the official investigation, the Russian NGO Memorial, the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and Novaya Gazeta engaged in their own investigation. They found[vi] discrepancies in the evidence taken from the car purportedly used in the kidnapping, a failure to collect DNA samples from a broader range of suspects in Chechnya, and unwillingness to look into a possible role by the Kurchaloi district police. The Kurchaloi district police had been implicated in an extrajudicial execution Estemirova had exposed in the weeks before her murder.[vii]
The current official version [viii] of the investigation maintains that the abduction and killing of Natalia Estemirova was carried out by Alkhazur Bashaev, a member of an illegal armed group, as well as other as yet undisclosed individuals. This assertion confirmed the well-founded fear, expressed earlier by the head of Memorial, Oleg Orlov, that investigators were keen to attribute the murder to armed militants, and preferably those who had already been killed by the authorities[ix] (as in the case of journalist Telman Alishayev shot in 2008 in Dagestan[x]). In 2011 the investigation by Memorial, FIDH and Novaya Gazeta concluded that the authorities had no credible basis to maintain that Alkhazur Bashaev was involved in the kidnapping and murder of Natalia Estemirova. On the contrary, the material in the case file which makes up the “evidence” gives reason to suspect a deliberate fabrication of evidence with the aim of creating a case against Bashaev.[xi]
[i]Fatima Tlisova, Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, ‘Chechnya: The Assassination of Journalist Natalia Estemirova,’ 30 August 2010, http://pulitzercenter.org/blog/untold-stories/chechnya-assassination-journalist-natalia-estemirova
[ii] Civil Rights Defenders, ‘Natalia Estemirova,’ 03 July 2012, http://www.civilrightsdefenders.org/uncategorized/human-rights-defenders-of-the-month-natalia-estemirova/
[iii] Tlisova, Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, ‘Chechnya:..,’ 30 August 2010.
[v] BBC News, ‘Obituary: Natalia Estemirova,’ 15 July 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8152648.stm
[vi] Novaya Gazeta, Special Report: ‘Two years after the murder of Natalya Estemirova: Investigation is on the wrong path,’ 11 July 2011, http://www.novayagazeta.ru/inquests/47217.html
[vii] Amnesty International, ‘Russia must deliver justice for Natalia Estemirova and other murdered activists,’ 14 July 2012 http://www.amnesty.org/en/for-media/press-releases/russia-must-deliver-justice-natalia-estemirova-and-other-murdered-activists
[viii] Novaya Gazeta, Special Report: ‘Natalya Estemirova,’ 11 July 2011, http://www.novayagazeta.ru/inquests/47217.html
[ix] GDF and IFJ, Media Conflicts in Russia – Natalia Estemirova, 27 October 2010, http://mediaconflictsinrussia.org/card/2924/
[x] GDF and CJES Online Database – ‘Deaths of Journalists in Russia – Telman Alishan,’ http://journalists-in-russia.org/jir/rjournalists/view/310
[xi] FIDH, Memorial and Novaya Gazeta, ‘Two Years After the Murder of Natalya Estemirova: Investigation on the Wrong Track,’ 14 July 2011, http://www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/russie568anglais-3.pdf