Murder of Chechen Human Rights Activist 'Natalya Estemirova Was Constantly Being Threatened'

Chechen activist and journalist Natalya Estemirova was found dead on Wednesday just a few hours after being kidnapped by unknown assailants. Her colleague at the human rights organization Memorial, Arseni Roginski, spoke to SPIEGEL ONLINE about her murder -- and why he thinks Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov is behind it.
Murdered Chechen journalist Natalya Estemirova

Murdered Chechen journalist Natalya Estemirova

Foto: AFP

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Roginski, yesterday your colleague from Memorial, Natalya Estemirova was murdered in the northern Caucasus. Unknown assailants kidnapped and then shot her. What do you know about the crime?

Arseni Roginski: This terrible crime only happened yesterday, so we don't know much yet. Natalya was the representative of our office in the Chechen capital Grozny. What we do know is that she left her house on Wednesday to go to work. On the way, she was attacked by unidentified men and thrown into a car. Witnesses say that it was a white car of the Russian make Zhiguli. She managed to cry out for help and screamed that she was being kidnapped. A few hours later, her body was found in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Estemirova had worked for many years for your human rights organization, Memorial. What exactly was she was working on?

Roginski: In addition to our headquarters in Moscow, we also have many offices in the northern Caucasus. Our staff members look into human rights abuses, collect information and conduct investigations. There are regions in the Caucasus where so-called anti-terror operations are being conducted, where security forces go after armed separatists. Natalya was researching kidnappings, torture and murders. She was extremely professional. She had begun to write about her work. She published articles in various newspapers, including the Novaya Gazeta, where Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist shot dead in 2006 , worked. Like Politkovskaya, she was both a human rights activist and a journalist -- though Natalya came to writing through her work.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What was the last thing she was working on?

Roginski: She was working on many things at once. But a case about a young woman had attracted a lot of attention. A 20-year-old named Madina was kidnapped in June, abused and eventually died. Natalya was of the opinion that Chechen security forces were behind it. Then, at the beginning of July, armed men drove into Madina's village and torched her parents' house. Natalya made all this public last week. I am convinced that this was the reason for her murder.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Had there been any previous threats?

Roginski: She was constantly being threatened. In the Caucasus, people don't make much of a fuss, they don't keep quite and they're very direct. People told her she would be better off dropping her investigation -- for her own good.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Who threatened Estemirova? It couldn't have been representatives of the Chechen government, could it?

Roginski: One can always find middlemen -- envoys who don't belong directly to the state apparatus. She had also spoken several times with President Ramzan Kadyrov in person. The message from him was always the same: "Natalya, we are not pleased with you."

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Who is the mastermind behind the murder?

Roginski: Well, it's a fact that Natalya's body was found in an area in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, where Kadyrov's units are conducting military operations against Islamist insurgents. The territory is under their control.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Oleg Orlov, your colleague from Memorial, says that there is no doubt that Kadyrov sent a death squad after Estemirova.

Roginski: That's a little farther than I'm willing to go. We can't know that for sure. In any case, Kadyrov's opponents were in no way interested in seeing her dead. Natalya unswervingly denounced the crimes and savage acts of Kadyrov's men, the so-called Kadyrovtsy. That's why I think that the guilty must be sought in the circles of the Chechen leadership. But I also want to stress that this is only my guess. I have no solid proof. The real issue is that Kadyrov doesn't even have to give such orders. There are already enough people in Chechnya who are eager to offer up their services to those in power in Grozny. By murdering Natalya, they've given him a present.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you believe that the guilty will be brought to justice?

Roginski: I'm very skeptical. The murders of Politkovskaya and the human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov  have still not been solved. Should there come a time when Ramzan Kadyrov wants to distance himself from the matter, perhaps the guilty will be found. But this is how things usually go around here: There will be scapegoats; but I'm sure that the true culprits will never be punished.

Interview conducted by Benjamin Bidder
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