Ieva Raubisko: Investigation into Natalia Estemirova murder lacks rigour

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The Independent Online

One year after the murder of Russian human rights activist Natalia Estemirova, her killers remain undiscovered by an investigation lacking in rigour and impartiality

Ms Estemirova, the leading researcher of human rights centre “Memorial” in Chechnya, was abducted by unidentified men in the Chechen capital Grozny, and her body dumped in neighbouring Ingushetia on 15 July last year. Her murder was condemned across the world.

The investigators first focused on cases of disappearances and extrajudicial killings that Ms Estemirova had been probing before her death, her colleagues said. Later, however, the investigators’ attention was directed mostly at rebels fighting against the pro-Moscow regime, culminating in murder charges levelled against a fighter named Alkhazur Bashayev.

Mr Bashayev, who was killed in a special operation in November 2009, allegedly disliked Ms Estemirova. Yet her colleagues at “Memorial” claim that such link is tenuous as Ms Estemirova never interviewed Mr Bashayev and never wrote any article specifically about him.

Given his death, Mr Bashayev serves as a convenient figure and helps to divert attention from the highly probable involvement of state officials and law enforcers in the activist’s murder. Thus, Ms Estemirova appears to share the fate of many of the disappeared and killed she used to defend in Chechnya: the murder investigation has effectively stalled.

Last year saw the number double of abductions and killings of people suspected of armed resistance to the regime of Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov and their relatives, bringing the total number of registered kidnappings to 93. Of these 10 people have been found dead and 19 remain missing, according to a report by “Memorial”.

The abductions go seemingly unnoticed in the Russian republic where massive reconstruction has covered the physical scars of war with new roads, schools, hospitals, residential buildings, mosques, factories and other infrastructure.

The kidnappings are typically carried out by law enforcers who neither identify themselves nor present any charges against those detained. Deliberately inefficient investigations are usually the result when relatives dare to report abuses to human rights defenders and authorities.

The abducted people are often kept in illegal prisons, tortured “to obtain operative information”, and then released or officially charged with unlawful activities. Some, however, remain missing, even if their families have filed complaint with the European Court of Human Rights.

One such example is the abduction of Zarema Gaisanova, a 41-year-old employee of the Danish Refugee Council, in Grozny last October.

During a special operation in the Leninsky suburb of the city, an alleged rebel fighter was killed in Ms Gaisanova’s yard, and her family house – still under reconstruction at the time – was burnt down.

Ms Gaisanova was pushed into a car and taken away by law enforcement and has been missing ever since. Her mother has filed numerous petitions and complaints locally, as well as to the European Court of Human Rights.

Yet the investigation – which has seen five different investigators change during its course in Chechnya – has not yielded any significant results.

The author is a researcher who used to work with Natalia Estemirova