Russia was yesterday under pressure from the West to solve the murder of a top campaigner in the turbulent North Caucasus region as activists pointed the finger at the strongman leader of Chechnya.
The corpse of Natalya Estemirova, 50, was found on Wednesday afternoon with gunshot wounds to the head and chest hours after she was seen being bundled into a car from outside her home in the Chechen capital Grozny.
Estemirova worked for the acclaimed Russian rights group Memorial and her murder was just the latest killing of a campaigner in the country, following the 2006 murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev — who swiftly condemned the killing — was scheduled to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel outside Munich for a summit meeting where the murder may be discussed.
Memorial issued an emotional statement in which it explicitly blamed Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya who has brought a degree to stability to the region but is accused by activists of sanctioning a string of abuses.
“I know, I am sure who is guilty of Natalya Estemirova’s murder, we all know him — his name is Ramzan Kadyrov,” said Memorial’s head Oleg Orlov. Kadyrov had “threatened Natalya, insulted her and considered her a personal enemy.”
“We do not know if he gave the order himself or his close associates did so to please their boss,” Orlov said.
Kadyrov however voiced outrage over the killing of a “helpless woman” and pledged to personally oversee the investigation, the RIA Novosti news agency said.
“Those who raised their hand against her have no right to call themselves human and deserve no mercy,” Kadyrov said.
“Life imprisonment is not enough for Estemirova’s murderers, they must be judged as inhuman, who attacked not only a helpless woman, but our whole people,” he said.
Medvedev “expressed indignation at this murder” and ordered a top-level investigation, Kremlin spokeswoman Natalya Timakova said.
The swift Kremlin reaction — issued just two hours after the murder was confirmed — contrasted with sluggish responses to previous killings of activists such as Politkovskaya.
But Western states and rights groups urged the authorities to bring those responsible to justice, something Russia has failed to do in similar cases over the last decade.
US State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Washington was “deeply saddened,” and added in a statement: “We call upon the Russian government to bring those responsible to justice.”
Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch, said “it seems to be open season” on activists working to highlight abuses in Chechnya.
“It’s high time the Russian government acted to stop these killings and prosecute those responsible,” he said in a statement.
In 2007 Estemirova was awarded the Anna Politkovskaya prize — named after the murdered Russian journalist, her friend and collaborator — by the Nobel Women’s Initiative, a group established by female Nobel Peace Prize laureates.
Earlier this month, Memorial and Human Rights Watch issued a hard-hitting report accusing Chechen security forces of punishing families of alleged militants by burning down their homes.
Memorial said Estemirova had particularly angered the local authorities by accusing security forces of carrying out an extra-judicial execution of an alleged rebel in public in front of his village on July 7.