Police Claim to Identify Estemirova’s Killer

Natalya Estemirova. Source: ITAR-TASSLaw enforcement agents in Russia’s Southern Federal District are claiming to have solved last July’s scandalous murder of human rights activist Natalya Estemirova. At the same time, colleagues of the victim are refuting the announcement, and journalists have been unable to obtain official confirmation of the announcement by other federal agencies, Gazeta.ru reports.

In a statement on Thursday to the Russian news agencies Interfax and RIA Novosti, law enforcement sources said that the murder had been solved and a killer had been identified. The killer has not, however, been detained, and a search is currently underway. Investigators, the sources said, are also still working to establish the identity of the person who ordered the murder.

Oleg Orlov of the Memorial human rights center, where Estemirova had worked, has already refuted the announcement. Speaking to Gazeta.ru, Orlov said that his colleagues at Memorial have spoken with representatives of the groups investigating Estemirova’s murder, and that these representatives denied that the announcement was true. “They said that they haven’t established the name of the murderer,” said Orlov.

While Gazeta.ru was able to obtain an unofficial confirmation from sources in the Chechen Investigative Committee that the culprit has been identified, all official sources proved to be unreachable on Thursday. The Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General of Russia refrained from commenting, and the official representative of the Chechen Investigative Committee was out of the office and did not answer her cell phone throughout the course of the day. The newspaper was also unable to reach the press secretary of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who had promised to monitor the course of the murder investigation.

The 50-year-old Estemirova had been the lead member of Memorial’s office in the Chechen capital of Grozny, and had worked to investigate kidnappings and murders of people in Chechnya. She was kidnapped herself not far from her home in the capital on June 15 of last year, and was later found shot dead in the Nazranovsky district of Ingushetia.

Memorial, which soon after announced that it was shutting down operations in Chechnya, blamed Estemirova’s murder on President Kadyrov, claiming that the volatile situation in the republic was the president’s responsibility. Kadyrov successfully sued Orlov for slander, and a Moscow city court fined Orlov 70 thousand rubles (about $2300). In the beginning of February, after experiencing pressure from public officials and a particularly public dressing-down from his mother for failing to respect his elders, Kadyrov dropped all further suits against other human rights activists, including the prominent 82-year-old Lyudmila Alexeyeva.

The news of Estemirova’s murder had a powerful resonation throughout the world. In particular, United States President Barack Obama issued a statement calling on the Russian authorities to investigate the murder and punish those responsible. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said that he did not believe that Kadyrov had participated in the tragedy, and considered the murder to be an act of provocation against the government.

Kadyrov, however, gave several interviews after the murder in which he spoke out harshly against the slain activist. Defending himself on Radio Liberty and saying that he took no part in the killing, the Chechen president said that he “had no reason to kill a woman who nobody needed.” Referring to her place on a public council under the Grozny city administration, he added that “she has never had any honor, dignity, or a conscience, and all the same I named her as a council representative.” He also did admit that he had later dissolved the council.

When asked if he thought the murder would ever be solved, Orlov stated that the politics tied up in the Estemirova’s case made it hard to say. “In naming this or that person as having participated in the murder, or in naming the person who possibly ordered the murder, the investigators and prosecutors are invariably stepping into a type of political realm,” he told the Kasparov.ru online newspaper.

Memorial member Aleksandr Cherkasov noted the 2002 murder investigation of an outspoken Chechen village leader, Malika Umazheva, as a cautionary tale. An official investigation blamed the killing on militants who it turned out had long been dead, and also on people who had only issued confessions under torture. Memorial’s own investigation established that Umazheva had been murdered by federal security forces, likely in retaliation for the leader’s fervent criticism of the ongoing Russian federal raids in her village.