Violence in the North Caucasus - Three Years since the Murder of Natalya Estemirova

16 July 2012

An abridged version of a discussion broadcast by Radio Liberty on 13 July (translated and edited by John Crowfoot).   

Vladimir Kara-Murza (presenter). Since Natalya Estemirova’s death the investigation into her killing has made no substantial progress. On the contrary, it has been followed by a series of other grave crimes. [...] 

Alexander Cherkasov (Memorial centre). Zarema Sadulayeva and Alik Djabrailov were abducted and murdered in Chechnya on 10 August 2009. Zarema Gaisanova was detained on 31 October during a special operation, directed by Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov himself, and subsequently disappeared. (She worked for the Danish Council for Refugees in Chechnya.) Ingush opposition figure Maksharip Aushev was shot dead in Kabardino-Balkaria on 24 October 2009. The last high-profile killing of a public figure in the Caucasus was that of Hadjimurad Kamalov, publisher of the Chernovik newspaper, who was shot dead in Makhachkala (Dagestan). None of the investigations into these crimes have made any progress. Those responsible have been neither named nor arrested. 

Vladimir Kara-Murza. Why is this entire series of crimes not being investigated? 

Tanya Lokshina (Human Rights Watch). It gives us grounds for believing that high-ranking individuals were involved in these crimes. They want to preserve their impunity. As we said at the Interfax press conference today, it is our impression that the authorities are not just trying to avoid investigating the murder of Natalya Estemirova. They have been making it as difficult as possible for the lawyers, rights defenders and activists who have been trying to continue the work Natalya did, by helping those whose near ones have been abducted or have themselves fallen victim to torture and extra-judicial killings. 

Therefore, the obstacles faced by the Joint Mobile Group of rights defenders in Chechnya are not really surprising. That group is headed by the Committee against Torture. Igor Kalyapin can describe how the group’s work is being constantly frustrated and obstructed. 

Igor Kalyapin (Committee against Torture). I would begin by saying that it is not so much human rights defenders who encounter difficulties as official investigators who are conducting investigations into the abductions and killings of people in the Chechen Republic. There are dozens of similar cases. Our legal experts are involved in several of them. We encounter the same situation in every case. The local law-enforcement agencies, above all those linked to Chechen Republic Ministry of Internal Affairs, offer fierce resistance to these investigations. [...] 

One case in which I personally am representing the victim is that of Islam Umarpashayev. It has become famous because up until now he is the only person to have survived abduction. Four months after his disappearance Umarpashayev suddenly appeared again and provided not only us but also the official investigators with a full account of his location during that entire period. All that time, he said, he had been held in an underground cell of the riot police (OMON), handcuffed to a radiator. He is entirely innocent and has never been charged with any offence. All he did wrong was to make derogatory remarks in an internet chat about some of the ranking police officers in Chechnya who make up Ramzan Kadyrov’s entourage. 

This case has successfully been transferred to a higher level of investigation, and has been entrusted to Colonel Igor Sobol of the Investigative Committee for the North Caucasus Federal District. This is the same Sobol, who has led the investigation into Natalya Estemirova’s murder. The colonel has made a conscientious effort to gather the evidence and tried to carry out investigative procedures, for instance, in the area covered by the Oktyabrsky district police department in Grozny [from which Estemirova was abducted on the morning of 15 July 2009, tr.]. Colonel Sobol is an investigator from the Investigative Committee for the entire North Caucasus Federal District, yet he and his team were not allowed access to the police station and force was used to make them go away. 

The same happened again when the investigative group tried to visit the base of the riot police (OMON). The police commander said he would open fire and the investigators would be shot dead if they came onto his territory. Not to mention the fact that Chechen police officers have not turned up for the investigative procedures or when summonsed to appear, exerting pressure on the witnesses. That is how the investigation – perhaps we should say “investigation”? – has proceeded for the last three years. 

Tatyana Lokshina. It’s very important to add, I think, that this outrageous lawless behaviour that continues to this day and the failure to punish those who kill journalists and rights defenders in the North Caucasus effectively indicates that such people are a legitimate target. 

If first one person, then a second, then a third and a fourth are murdered and investigation of these homicides makes no progress for years , this can only inspire potential killers to commit fresh crimes. The murders of those our colleagues who died over the past few years did not come as a surprise. It was appalling but it came as no surprise because each of them had faced serious threats. Natalya Estemirova was personally threatened by the president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov himself. He told her his arms were in steeped in blood, asked her questions about the members of her family, and let her know beyond any doubt that she should stop what she was doing – she should give up her work and keep silent. Natalya was murdered; her death has not been investigated. 

In September 2009 Hadjimurad Kamalov, publisher of Chernovik, probably the most well-known independent newspaper in Dagestan, found himself with two dozen other activists, journalists and lawyers in a death list. Those who compiled this list of names, denouncing them as Wahhabis and terrorist supporters, said that they were going to kill the people they had named. The authorities knew that threats had been made but took no action to protect him. 

Vladimir Kara-Murza. So extra-judicial killings and abductions remain a feature of life in the North Caucasus today? 

Alexander Cherkasov. Yes, that’s true of all the republics and of Dagestan. It’s also true of Ingushetia although there the dirty work is being done not by local security men but mainly from outsiders, people from Kabardino-Balkaria and Chechnya. In Chechnya itself, however, we do not know how many people have been abducted. People are afraid to bring complaints. Even when they do, they often withdraw their statement because they have been told not to report the matter or draw up a written complaint. [...] 

In Dagestan the situation is getting worse. Last year seemed rather better by comparison with 2010. The opposite is now true and special operations are being carried out during which people disappear. A major part of the active service groups of the federal Ministry of Internal Affairs, which make up the bulk of the military and police units now in Chechnya, have been moved from the military base at Khankala into Dagestan where they are operating in much the same manner as in Chechnya. [...] 

Tatyana Lokshina. The Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights continues to work in Chechnya. In fact, the commissioner personally intervened in the case of Umarpashayev, which has already been mentioned here. It is one of the main investigations pursued by the Joint Mobile Group of HR defenders in Chechnya. The commissioner made a personal request to those in charge of the Investigative Committee to transfer the investigation from Chechnya to the federal level. The Joint Mobile Group had long pressed for this to happen. [...] 

Vladimir Kara-Murza. What’s happened, by the way, about Kadyrov’s claim that he was slandered by Oleg Orlov, head of Memorial? 

Alexander Cherkasov. There were two cases, to be precise. We lost the first civil case. The second trial for criminal defamation went on for a long time until, in summer 2011, the court ruled that Oleg Orlov had not defamed Mr Kadyrov, i.e. there was no knowing intention in his words to distort anything. He expressed an opinion and was entitled to do so. [...] 

Vladimir Kara-Murza. Do you think the stream of complaints to the European Court of Human Rights will dry up, now that the present panel of judges has made the procedure more complicated? 

Tatiana Lokshina. Honestly, I don’t think the flow of complaints to the ECtHR will diminish. People are complaining because they cannot get justice at home, in Russia. It is truly the court of the last instance, the last hope of those who have battled to achieve something and found they were beating their heads against a wall. That’s the way it is, for instance, for relatives who have disappeared in Chechnya. It’s another matter how the Court’s decisions are implemented. The ECtHR not only awards compensation in monetary terms but requires that States take specific measures concerning the existing legislation and its application, in order to prevent the repetition of such violations. [...] 

Alexander Cherkasov. The Court in Strasbourg is and will remain a way of defending people for as long as Russia remains within its legal framework. For instance, we became acquainted with many materials concerning the case of Zarema Gaisanova after the ECtHR obliged the Russian authorities to make them available. [...] 

Vladimir Kara-Murza. What means of obtaining justice remain available to those living in the North Caucasus? 

Igor Kalyapin. I can tell you how our group is trying to find such means. Not one of our cases has ended successfully so I could not call our methods a successful means of securing justice. Let me repeat, once again, that there is only one case that might actually come to court. That is the case of 23-year-old Umarpashayev because by a miracle he survived and was not shot dead on 9 May 2010, as he had been promised. ‘Sometime around 9 May we’ll dress you in battle fatigues and shoot you,’ they had said, ‘and you’ll die like a man with a gun in your hand.’ They decided to free him, first making him swear that he would tell everyone, ‘I was not being held by the riot police, went to visit relatives in Dagestan.’ 

Islam Umarpashayev broke his promise and continues to testify in court. This may well prove the only case that reaches a judgment and then it will offer some prescription for the pursuit of justice. As you’ve heard, it took the intervention of the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, the transfer of the case to the federal level, and its allocation to the most famous and effective investigator in the entire North Caucasus investigative department. I doubt that all the cases of abduction and murder in the Chechen Republic can be investigated by pursuing the same pattern. At present I can see no practical mechanism that could be recommended for attaining justice. It does not exist in the Russian Federation. 

Vladimir Kara-Murza. Representatives from a number of human rights organisations have asked President Putin himself to oversee the investigation of Natalya Estemirova’s murder. Is this a sign of desperation? 

Alexander Cherkasov. Probably they are drawing attention both to the killing and to President Medvedev’s decision to oversee the investigation. There has been a change in presidents and they are writing to ask what resources could be brought into play. 

We know from the investigation of the Kamalov murder that our investigative bodies have simply forgotten how to work, after spending many years protecting the security forces in the Caucasus. Because they missed everything, to begin with, after Hadjimurad Kamalov was murdered. The crime scene was not properly examined, the discarded shells were picked up by a passer-by, and there was no anatomical examination of Kamalov’s body [...]

We know of approximately three thousand abductions in Chechnya but have only three court decisions in Russia and 135 in Strasbourg - this means that it is hard to find justice here and that, in turn, strengthens the propaganda of those organising an underground opposition. If our investigators could take effective measures to deal with those who not only falsify election results but create a false impression of an anti-terrorist operation, this would give people hope of justice and mean that fewer of them join the fighters in the forest. That probably is the way to end violence in the North Caucasus. 

Tanya Lokshina. I do not believe for one second that our colleagues in Chechnya who signed this document really imagine that Putin will take charge of the case. They do not expect him to ensure its investigation, let alone find and punish Natalya’s killers. But it takes enormous courage to make such declarations today, if you and your family are living in Chechnya. Three years have passed and we believe she was killed by office-holders and that the regime itself was involved in her murder. [...] 

Vladimir Kara-Murza. How do you feel the loss of Natalya Estemirova today? Did those evil-doers achieve their goal when they shut down a source of reliable information from Chechnya? 

Alexander Cherkasov. There’s no question about her role as a source of information. But we have lost an outstanding, radiant individual. It is tough without her, impossible, everything has changed. 

On the other hand, if you excuse such a comment, after Natasha’s death Igor Kalyapin and rights defenders who until then restricted their investigations of police torture to their own regions, came together to form this Joint Mobile Group, operating round the clock to deal with the most dangerous cases – the cases that were dealt with before by Natalya. 

Vladimir Kara-Murza. What do you think, will Natalya Estemirova’s cause continue? 

Igor Kalyapin. I should state that the situation in Chechnya after Natasha’s death changed drastically. This was not just because we had lost a very effective and professional rights defender. Her murder was a deliberate warning. Before, many people had appealed to Memorial and visited its offices in Grozny. After her death people realised that it was hopeless to appeal to rights defenders who could not even defend their own leader.