First Russia's small and beleaguered human rights community received the news that the activist Natalya Estemirova had been abducted and murdered. Yesterday, the strongman President of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, who many believe was linked to the killing, added insult to that injury when he said that he planned to sue the campaigning organisation of which she was a member in order to "defend his dignity".
It was another blow for Memorial, the organisation that supported Ms Estemirova in her work exposing human rights abuses in Chechnya. It came after Oleg Orlov, the group's head, said on Thursday: "I know who is guilty of Natalya's murder. His name is Ramzan Kadyrov."
He insisted that he meant Mr Kadyrov, pictured right, carried broader responsibility.
But Mr Kadyrov has rejected that explanation and his spokesman said he was preparing a lawsuit.
It emerged yesterday that he had telephoned Mr Orlov after the Memorial leader implicated him in the murder of Ms Estemirova, who was kidnapped outside her house in Grozny on Wednesday and found dead later that day.
Mr Kadyrov attempted to take the moral high ground in the call. "You're not a prosecutor or a judge, so your comments about my guilt are to say the least unethical; they seem very strange and are insulting to me," said Mr Kadyrov, according to a transcript on the Chechen government website.
Despite suspicion that his security forces were involved in the killing, Mr Kadyrov has said that he will oversee the investigation personally. The news will make the work carried out by Memorial and other human rights organisations in the North Caucasus seem more forlorn. Ms Estemirova's death and the stonewall response to it are another reminder of the dangers facing those who work to bring rights abuses to light in Chechnya and in its neighbouring republics. Many are now considering whether such work is still viable.
Those who live in Moscow but travel to the North Caucasus intermittently for work are not completely safe, as shown by the murder in January of Stanislav Markelov, a lawyer who worked on controversial cases involving Chechnya. But they are not as vulnerable as activists based there.
Workers at Memorial expressed a desire to keep working but its leadership in Moscow said that pulling out of the republic might be best.
"Our people are courageous, they are ready to work. But we need to think about whether we are ready to risk their lives," said Mr Orlov. "I can't say anything else because I don't know. We just need to think."
Ms Estemirova's death is the latest in a line of killings, all unsolved, of people involved in human rights or opposition work in the region. Two others have died in similar circumstances this year.
Ms Estemirova worked tirelessly to uncover and investigate cases of kidnapping, murder, torture and retributive house-burning, much of which appeared to be the work of militias loyal to Mr Kadyrov, who is a friend of Moscow.
Colleagues said her death would be a blow to Chechens seeking justice, as while there are others working on such cases, Ms Estemirova had built a reputation as a trusted and diligent fighter who had a network of contacts within the official structures that was unmatched.
The mood in Grozny remains combative. "Most people are simply going to be more determined than ever to fight," said Mari Bastashevski, a Danish photojournalist working on a project about abductions in the North Caucasus, who knew Ms Estemirova. "She was an inspiration to me and to many other people, and although it will be harder without her, people are not going to hide."
Ieva Raubisko: 'We should not become blind again; that much we owe her'
The death of Natalia Estemirova – or Natasha, as we all knew her – was another in a painful chain of murders, but it opened our eyes. It disrupted the lull that had settled in after the killing of her friend, the Russian lawyer Stanislav Markelov, in Moscow last January, and it showed us just how deceptive that lull was. Above all, it shocked us with the reality of everyday life for Natasha: a life of ever-present, unpredictable state violence, of disappearances, torture, killings, hypocrisy and injustice, where human life costs nothing and human dignity is a hollow phrase.
Yet what was exceptional and admirable about Natasha is that she managed to retain her dignity in the direst of circumstances. She fought fiercely for the dignity of others subjected to injustice, those with no means of defending themselves. Faced with the grinding machinery of Ramzen Kadyrov's regime in Chechnya, she never stopped working, never became cynical, never lost heart. Instead, she used her knowledge of the law and bureaucracy to do the maximum she could within the confines of the system.
Natasha was involved in a myriad of cases, from the Chechen government's attempts to destroy people's homes all over Grozny to the house-burning of the families of the alleged rebel fighters. She worked to improve the conditions of Chechen inmates in Russian prisons (many of them sentenced based on unproven charges), and she worked to shine a light on the many ongoing and often unreported kidnappings, beatings and disappearances. She worked endlessly.
At times she would be nervous and tired, but she would never switch off her phone and refuse help to those whose lives often depended on her. She never complained or said she was afraid. I saw Natasha cry only once: when a father of a young man called to thank her and tell that his son – who had been detained, tortured and kept in prison under fabricated charges – was finally released.
In Natasha's flat, there were many flowers, and a rich bookshelf. That shelf held a collection of articles by Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist murdered in 2006, and photos of Anna and Viktor Popkov, humanitarian workers until he was shot and killed in Chechnya in 2001. They were all precious to her. Natasha kept them and others in dear memory and continued their work, never intimidated by threats, never hindered by physical exhaustion.
Natasha has now joined those who were killed before her. We should not become blind again: that much we owe to her and the people she tried to help.
The author is a PhD student who used to work with Natalia EstemirovaReuse content