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Human rights group pulls out of Chechnya

Activist's murder highlights the chaos, corruption and crime infesting Russia's North Caucasus region

Shaun Walker
Sunday 19 July 2009 00:00 BST

The human rights organisation Memorial said yesterday that it would cease to work in Chechnya and close its office in the republic, as it could not guarantee the safety of its staff.

The organisation took the decision after the kidnapping and murder of Natalya Estemirova, one of its employees, on Wednesday. The decision will be another blow to those who seek to uncover human rights abuses in Chechnya and the other unstable republics of Russia's North Caucasus region.

"After a long meeting in Grozny, we have decided to close indefinitely," said Dokka Itslaev, a lawyer who works for Memorial. "We don't know if we'll reopen. We will meet in the autumn and discuss it again. There were different opinions expressed, but when people are being killed and you don't know who is going to be next, it's difficult to continue."

Ms Estemirova, who worked tirelessly to bring to light stories of Chechens who had been kidnapped and murdered, was bundled into a car by four men as she left her house for work. Her body was discovered later in the day in the neighbouring state of Ingushetia.

Oleg Orlov, the Moscow-based chairman of Memorial, flew to Grozny for the meeting at which the decision was taken to close the organisation down in Chechnya. He also responded yesterday to the news that the President of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, is planning to sue him. Mr Kadyrov's spokesman announced on Friday that the Chechen leader would sue Mr Orlov in connection with remarks that the Memorial head made implicating him in Ms Estemirova's death.

The move is expected to put paid to rumours that have circulated in the human rights community and beyond that Mr Kadyrov had any involvement in the crime.

"It's good that Ramzan Kadyrov has decided to deal with a conflict using legal methods," Mr Orlov told Ekho Moskvy radio. "You have to take responsibility for your words and I am ready to do so in court."

While news from the volatile North Caucasus region more often than not focuses on Chechnya, the situation in neighbouring republics is no better. Patches of stability in the region, a chaotic jigsaw of republics, are few and far between, and analysts say that Moscow is losing control. In many cases, a similar unwritten deal was struck as with Mr Kadyrov in Chechnya – local elites are given power in return for guaranteeing stability. It is a deal that has gone horribly wrong, however.

In Ingushetia, where Ms Estemirova's body was found on Wednesday, life is dangerous and chaotic. Almost every day, news filters in from the Russian agencies about policemen or law enforcement officials being killed, and the region has become the front line in the Kremlin's battle against Islamic insurgency.

Then there's Dagestan, a mountainous region bordering Chechnya that sits on the Caspian Sea, where dozens of different nationalities live side by side. Here too, attacks on police and officials happen daily.

"The region is mired in corruption on a truly insane scale – everything is for sale," said a source in the republic. "There is a genuine Muslim insurgency there, but it's difficult to say how many of the killings are related to this and how much is simply a result of local clan warfare and corruption."

In Chechnya, Mr Kadyrov has achieved surface stability, but there remains an underlying current of violence and terror. Memorial released a report on Friday about some of the cases dealt with in Chechnya during June. One elderly couple had the dead body of their son returned to their house by soldiers who then began to assault the father with their rifle butts. Each story appears more horrific than the last: teenage boys kidnapped from their beds by armed men in the middle of the night; houses burnt down; and extra-judicial murders carried out.

The report details repeated cases of kidnapping, torture and murder. Some of the victims were ostensibly members of the Islamic insurgency that has been active in the republic for more than a decade, but experts say that many of those arrested have little connection with the rebels and are simply set up. It makes for sickening reading, both because of the gruesomeness of the cases, and because of the knowledge that Memorial – one of the few organisations that people with such stories could turn to – will no longer be there to help victims.

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