A human rights worker known for her fearless criticism of the Kremlin and its Chechen proxies was abducted in broad daylight and shot to death Wednesday.
Natalia Estemirova, who worked doggedly to document ongoing human rights abuses in war-wrecked Chechnya long after international attention had drifted away, was on her way to work when men snatched her off the street in front of her Grozny home. She shouted for help, witnesses later told her colleagues, but the men stuffed her into a car and drove away.
A few hours later, her body turned up in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. She had been shot in the head and chest.
Estemirova was the latest in a string of well-known Russian activists and journalists who were slain after delving into human rights abuses tied to the government, especially those in Chechnya. Each successive death seems to deepen the fear, anger and sense of futility among remaining activists.
Estemirova, 51, was the widowed mother of a 15-year-old girl. She worked as a history teacher in Grozny, the Chechen capital, before the first of two wars broke out in the 1990s. As bloodshed spiraled, Estemirova set about documenting the history she was living, first as a journalist and later as a seemingly indefatigable researcher for Memorial, a human rights group.
In recent years, she was one of the lone voices that still spoke out from within Chechnya to describe an underbelly of disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture and heavy-handed autocracy that underpinned the rule of Kremlin-backed President Ramzan Kadyrov.
“There is a very, very big number of people who disappear for several hours or several days and return home beaten up and psychologically broken, and most of them never say what happened to them,” Estemirova said in an interview last year. “This is being seriously hushed up.”
Like other critics who speak out against Russia’s deeply entrenched power structures, Estemirova would have had a keen awareness of her own vulnerability. She had worked closely with investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya and human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, who were gunned down in 2006 and early this year respectively in Moscow. Both were believed to be victims of contract killings.
Neither crime has been solved. “We lost Anna. Now we couldn’t protect Natasha,” said Alexander Cherkasov, a board member of Memorial. “She was killed for her work.”
Estemirova had clashed repeatedly with Chechen authorities. She had contributed heavily to recent human rights reports documenting the extrajudicial punishment and burning of homes of people related to suspected anti-Kadyrov rebels.
She had also contributed to a report released Wednesday that called for Russian officials, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, to be held accountable for human rights crimes.
“There’s an atmosphere of impunity,” Estemirova said in an interview last year. “We have a list of more than 4,000 people still missing and there are many cases in which we have hard evidence against people who kidnapped them, we even have their names and ranks, but it’s impossible to initiate an investigation.”
Earlier this month, she had publicized the case of a man who was shot to death in the streets of a Chechen village, without trial or investigation, for alleged ties to the rebels.
“The Chechen authorities immediately made it known . . . that Memorial should not air the household garbage in public like that,” Cherkasov said.
In a sharp departure from the official reaction (or lack thereof) to the slayings of other critics, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s office offered condolences to her family and said she probably had been killed for her human rights activities. Investigators were dispatched to the Caucasus to open an inquiry.
Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.