The murderers had no fear of the police. Last Wednesday, at 8:30 in the morning, several men abducted human rights activist Natalya Estemirova, who was screaming at the top of her voice, from her house and threw her into a white Lada car waiting outside. Unimpeded by any kind of checks by the authorities, the men drove across the tightly controlled administrative border into the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, about 100 kilometers (63 miles) from the Chechen capital Grozny.
Eight hours later, her body was found there, only about 100 meters (328 feet) off the main highway, with gunshot wounds to the head and chest. It looked as if she had been executed.
Estemirova, 50, was an institution in the Russian-dominated northern Caucasus region. She had worked for the human rights organization Memorial documenting cases of severe human rights violations, which had earned her the hatred of many powerful figures. Before her body was taken to her home town last Thursday to be buried, mourners accompanied the coffin through the streets of Grozny. They carried portraits of the murdered activist and a banner with the words "Who is next?" written on it. Authorities quickly dispersed the small procession, which numbered about 100 people.
Estemirova was a thorn in the side of those in power in Chechnya and Russia. She wrote for Novaya Gazeta, the most outspoken independent newspaper in Moscow. She was a colleague of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, another victim of murder. Estemirova had written repeatedly about the "disappeared" in Chechnya, and about the young men who had been abducted by death squads connected to the security forces.
Courageous human rights activists face constant death threats, both in Grozny and Moscow. Estemirova was also a close associate of Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer who was shot dead in broad daylight in Moscow in January. Russian authorities claim that they have not found any trace of the killers.
Murders, kidnappings and violence are commonplace in the Caucasus. In the first five months of this year alone, security forces recorded 308 "terrorist crimes" in the region, and some 112 "bandits" were "liquidated." In the hope of securing at least partial control over the region, Moscow is pinning all its hopes on the 32-year-old Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov.
In response to the outrage the Estemirova murder triggered abroad, Kadyrov, seemingly with utter conviction, announced that the "terrible crime" would be swiftly investigated and said he would personally see to it that that happened. And then he added: "As determined by the centuries-old traditions and the mentality of the Chechen people, we will also search for the criminals using other, traditional methods -- methods that sometimes prove to be very effective."
Traditional methods? The words sound like they came from a mafia boss, not a president.
Because this way of thinking is typical of Kadyrov, human rights activities and Russian security experts suspect that he has personally ordered contract killings. There have been several shootings of political rivals of the Chechen president, including Ruslan Yamadayev, a former member of the Russian parliament, the Duma, who was shot dead in Moscow in September 2008.
Kadyrov governs Chechnya with a mixture of Stalinist repressive policies and Caucasian vendettas. In a 2005 interview with the pro-Kremlin newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, he admitted that it was his "hobby to kill devils." He employs bloodthirsty mercenaries who feel confident that no police officer or prosecutor would dare bring them to justice -- after all, Kadyrov is a protégé of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the former Russian president. As a result, the northern Caucasus has become a lawless region -- with the Kremlin's blessing. And Kadyrov has become a nightmare for human rights activists.
Natalya Estemirova was the daughter of a Chechen father and a Russian mother. She had recently sharply condemned Kadyrov's thugs for their systematic practice of burning down houses belonging to the families of members of the separatist underground movement. She helped Human Rights Watch, an international human rights organization, document 13 cases. And she also investigated the case of the wife of a rebel murdered by a police officer.
For Kadyrov, the human rights activist was a provocation and an enemy. He took action against her, including removing her from her position as chairwoman of the "Citizens' Council" in Grozny. He insulted her publicly and warned her to stay away from ministries and other government buildings in Grozny. Experts with the Russian domestic intelligence agency FSB say that "Kadyrov and his associates," as one colonel told SPIEGEL, are "strongly suspected of having planned and executed the murder of Estemirova." The crime, says the FSB officer, clearly bears "the coarse signature of the Kadyrovtsy," referring to a feared militia loyal to Kadyrov.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Munich when he learned of the murder. He paid tribute to Estemirova, saying she had done "very useful" work because she "spoke the truth." Medvedev also instructed the chief investigator to personally supervise the investigation of the bloody deed.
Will Medvedev's words have any effect? Will this murder actually be solved for a change?
Based on their experiences, Estemirova's colleagues doubt very much that that will happen. Vyacheslav Izmailov, an editor at Novaya Gazeta, says: "I would like to see the Russian investigator from Moscow who would actually launch an investigation there in Chechnya." Moscow's investigators, says Izmailov, know perfectly well that the Kremlin supports Kadyrov. He is convinced that "Medvedev's orders to the investigators are pure fiction." Kadyrov, he says, has surrounded himself with people "who don't know how to do anything but kill people" and who feel safe.
Izmailov's words are bolstered by several remarks Medvedev made in a meeting with the Chechen president at the Kremlin on June 22, some of which were televised. In the meeting, the Russian president, who has himself publicly warned against "legal nihilism" in his country, told Kadyrov that his campaign against underground fighters had "produced results." And then he urged Kadyrov to "continue this work."
On the same day, the president of the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, Yunus Bek Yevkurov, was seriously injured in a bomb attack. He is still being treated in a Moscow hospital. Medvedev had appointed Yevkurov in October 2008, in the hope that he would adopt a new course in the Caucasus. The new Ingushetian president, a former paratrooper, embarked on a dialogue with the opposition, and even human rights activists became cautiously optimistic, going so far as to speak of a "thaw."
Yevkurov was expected to become a counterforce to tyranny in neighboring Chechnya, where Kadyrov's "traditional methods" have not been particularly successful. Kadyrov has been unable to stop a steady flow of young men joining resistance groups in the mountains, and his approach to governing has only increased the numbers of his enemies.
The Russians are keeping a close eye on Kadyrov. The Chechen president's bodyguards are elite fighters from Russia's FSB intelligence service. They protect him -- but they also report anything out of the ordinary to their superiors in Moscow.
The bodyguards recently noted that Kadyrov was becoming increasingly audacious, especially in his quest for new sources of income. "Kadyrov is a toad raised by Putin," says an FSB general. "Putin could easily choke on him."