Leading article: Killing exposes the true face of modern Russia

The Kremlin's outrage over Natalia Estemirova's murder rings hollow
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The Independent Online

Uncovering the truth is a lethal business in Russia and its republics. Another independent human rights activist, Natalia Estemirova, was assassinated this week. She was abducted from near her home in Grozny, the Chechen capital, on Wednesday. Her body was found in the neighbouring state of Ingushetia later that day; she had been shot in the head. Ms Estemirova's death adds to the growing tally of courageous activists and independent journalists who have been assassinated in Russia in recent years.

Ms Estemirova knew the risks of revealing evidence of human rights abuses in modern Russia as much as anybody. She had experienced threats on more than one occasion. But that does not make her killing any less appalling – or any less damning of the political culture that prevails in her homeland.

There was stern condemnation of the killing from the Russian authorities this week. President Dmitry Medvedev declared his "outrage" at the crime, and the Chechen President, Ramzan Kadyrov, vowed that he would lead the investigation into Ms Estemirova's death. But there were similar promises following the murder of the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot in her Moscow apartment building in 2006, and still no one has been convicted of that murder. Two Chechen men were acquitted of involvement in the crime in February after a farce of a trial. With each unsolved killing, the question grows more insistent: does there exist any genuine desire on the part of either the Russian or Chechen authorities to see the perpetrators of these crimes brought to justice?

Many powerful people in Grozny and Moscow had reason to want Ms Estemirova silenced. She had uncovered numerous human rights abuses by the Chechen authorities – cases of torture, disappearances and extra-judicial killing. She had recently completed an investigation for Human Rights Watch into the Chechen authorities' practice of burning the homes of those suspected of having links to rebel groups. She speaks of these crimes in her final article, which we publish today.

Ms Estemirova was also adept at persuading victims and witnesses to testify in court cases – a considerable skill in a region cowed by the fear of official retribution. No one seriously doubts that she was targeted because of her work in exposing government abuses.

The Kremlin likes to portray Chechnya as a success story of modern Russia – a region being rapidly rebuilt after two decades of terrible conflict. The former Russian president and now Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, declared in front of the Chechen parliament following the 2005 election that "peace has come to the republic". But this "peace" has been achieved by putting the region under the control of a brutal gangster regime. Human rights are routinely abused by the security forces, there is impunity for lawbreakers, and brave individuals such as Ms Estemirova – who tell the world what is really going on – end up dead.

The Kremlin might put on a show of concern about such high-profile killings, but it has shown no inclination to force its Chechen subordinates to change their ways. The Russian government's tight control of the national media show its essential antithesis to the kind of open, democratic society Ms Estemirova was fighting for. Her murder exposes the true face of Chechnya, and modern Russia, and it is not a pretty sight.