Natalia Estemirova knew she would be murdered one day. Among the many threats she received came a personal one from Chechen President Ramsan Kadyrov. She had seen many of her friends and colleagues murdered, those who like her investigated crimes in Chechnya. Just last January human rights lawyer and journalist Stanislav Markelov was slain, gunned down a few blocks from the Kremlin, as was journalist Anastasia Barburova who had rushed to Markelov's aid. In 2006, investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered, shot dead in the elevator of her apartment in central Moscow. No one has been convicted in these murders. (A complete list of journalists killed in Russia is here.) Still Estemirova, a 50-year-old single mother and head of the Grozny branch of Russia's oldest human rights group, Memorial, continued to work even as the bodies piled high, for she was working on "something very important," she told friends.
Of course, these are just the more prominent dead. Anyone who speaks against the Chechen president or his security forces and government-backed militias (nicknamed the kadyrovtsy) is more or less signing his own death warrant. As Human Rights Watch Director Kenneth Roth noted, "[it] seems to be open season on anyone trying to highlight the appalling human rights abuses in Chechnya." Nor does it matter where you go or where you hide. The Chechen president's security forces have long arms. Just last March a Kadyrov opponent, Umar Israilov, was shot dead in Vienna. That same month Kadyrov's foremost rival, former military commander Sulim Yamadayev, was gunned down in Dubai. (Dubai police accused Kadyrov's cousin and Russia Duma member Adam Delimkhanov of ordering the assassination.)
Estemirova was murdered as she investigated hundreds of reports of kidnapping, torture and murder in her homeland. That's a drop in the bucket compared to the official tally of 5,000 people missing in Chechnya, but enough to get the attention of the Chechen high command. At the time of her death Estemirova was investigating a campaign of house-burnings by government-backed militiamen, just like last November she investigated the execution-style murders of seven local women, who were somehow connected to the commander of the Chechen security forces, and who witnesses say were abducted by masked men in paramilitary uniforms.
Eyewitnesses say that on the morning of July 15, several men were spotted waiting in a white van outside Estemirova's home in Grozny. As she left her house at 8:30 a.m. and made her way on foot to the nearby bus stop, several men grabbed her and forced her into the van. At one point she managed to cry out that she was being kidnapped. Eight hours later her body was found dumped along a main road in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. She too had been shot execution-style in the head and chest.
Suspicion immediately fell upon President Kadyrov, a former rebel commander, who has managed to keep an uneasy peace in Chechnya by following a similar line taken by all despots: silencing all opposition. What has Kadyrov to be so paranoid about? Kadyrov's "security forces" are charged with rooting out separatist rebels, that is, scattered bands of Islamic militants and Islamic terrorists still fighting the Second Chechen War, still battling for independence from Russia. To accomplish this Kadyrov has relied on what the London Guardian calls "wholesale terror against its civilian population" many of whose members his government suspects of backing the rebels. In a very telling comparison, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group Ludmilla Alexeyeva said the "number of people who fear Kadyrov is similar to Stalin in Soviet times."
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Dmitry Medvedev straight away rejected claims by human rights groups that Kadyrov ordered the hit on Estemirova. And both Medvedev and Kadyrov have promised to bring the murderers to justice (rather like Stalin promising to punish those responsible for the Katyn Massacre). To that end Medvedev has concocted a bizarre conspiracy theory for the press that Estemirova's murder was "committed to discredit the Kremlin." Meanwhile, Memorial's director Oleg Orlov remains convinced the Chechen president ordered Estemirova's assassination. Kadyrov responded by filing charges against Orlov.
We know what kind of despot kills human rights workers and investigative journalists, Indeed, there is even a name for the disorder: narcissistic personality disorder. More difficult to understand is what drives people like Estemirova, Markelov, Barburova, and Politkovskaya to sacrifice their lives to battle injustice. A colleague, Elena Milashina, of the newspaper Novayagazeta, explained it best: "When you defend others you cease to fear. Those today who are fearful are the people who keep out of trouble, trying to survive these bad times, when the bad times (for some reason) never seem to end."
For those who insist there is no such thing as good and evil, the life and death of Natalia Estemirova proves them so very wrong.