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Frustration over hunt for Chechnya crusader's killers

A year after the murder of Natalya Estemirova, one of Chechnya’s leading human rights crusaders, her former colleagues and friends expressed anger today that no progress has been made in catching those behind the killing.

As colleagues held a remembrance service in Moscow to mark the anniversary, President Dmitry Medvedev made the surprise announcement that the killer of Ms Estemirova had been identified and an international search warrant was out for him.

The statement, made during a joint press conference today with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is at odds with previous information released by investigators.

They have said that the only suspect in the case was Alkhazur Bashayev, a rebel fighter who was himself killed later last year, and thus cannot be questioned.

Russian rights group Memorial has cast doubt on this version, saying that the man in question would have had no grudge against Ms Estemirova, and suggested the theory smacks of a cover-up.

“The hitman of the murder has been identified... but not the one who ordered this grave crime,” said Mr Medvedev yesterday. He said that the hitman was on an international wanted list.

“Maybe he means the same Bashayev, or maybe there is a new person that is being sought,” said Oleg Orlov, the head of Memorial, yesterday. “It’s all very unclear. I don’t understand anything.”

Ms Estemirova, who was one of the best-known of a dwindling number of human rights activists in Chechnya, was bundled into a car outside her house in Grozny on 15 July last year. Her body was later dumped in neighbouring Ingushetia.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed president of Chechnya, earlier this year won around £1,500 of damages from Mr Orlov, who implicated the Chechen president in Ms Estemirova’s death, something Mr Kadyrov has always denied.

However, after her death, Mr Kadyrov referred to Ms Estemirova as “without honour or shame” and in a recent television interview claimed that those who criticised rights abuses in the republic were “enemies of the people, enemies of the law and enemies of the state.”

Memorial, which still has a number of activists in Chechnya, expressed alarm that law enforcement bodies could see these words as a green light to attack its workers and other rights activists.