Who killed Natalya Estemirova?

Colleagues of Ms. Estemirova say her murder Wednesday is part of a pattern that shows cost of a Kremlin pact with Chechnyan President Ramzan Kadyrov.

Sergey Ponomarev/AP
People hold portraits of murdered rights activist Natalya Estemirova during a rally in Moscow, Thursday.

The murder of human rights activist Natalya Estemirova, kidnapped in Chechnya and shot execution-style in neighboring Ingushetia on Wednesday, has shocked the Kremlin and led President Dmitry Medvedev to pledge a full investigation.

But leaders of Memorial, the Russian human rights organization that Ms. Estemirova worked with, and other human rights experts here say her death can be added to a fast-growing price tag for a Faustian pact. They say that pro-Moscow strongman Ramzan Kadyrov "pacified" rebellious Chechnya, and in exchange, the Kremlin agreed to turn a blind eye to his methods.

"We know that Kadyrov controls Chechnya, and we know what [pro-Moscow] Chechen officials have said about Memorial, and Natalya, and her work. We have no illusions," says Alexander Cherkasov, a member of Memorial's board and longtime colleague of Estemirova's.

The head of Memorial, Oleg Orlov, told journalists Thursday that Mr. Kadyrov had threatened Estemirova in private conversation and admitted to her that he did not regret killing "bad people."

Mr. Cherkasov says Estemirova, one of a tiny handful of human rights workers to monitor the situation in Chechnya, was practically the sole surviving source of information on rights violations in the tiny war-torn republic, including the government's alleged use of death squads, kidnapping, and the burning of the family homes of unrepentant separatist rebels.

"She documented all the things that stood in contradiction to the pleasant image of Chechnya created by the authorities," he says.

Fourth prominent Kadyrov adversary to be killed

Estemirova, a single mother who lived in the Chechen capital of Grozny with her teenage daughter, was abducted outside her apartment building by armed men on Wednesday and bundled into a car. Her body was later found with gunshot wounds by a roadside in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, which is also in the throes of a mounting insurgency by Islamist extremists.

Her murder is the latest in a growing toll of Kadyrov critics, including the late Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist with the opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta and close friend of Estemirova, who was shot in her Moscow apartment elevator almost three years ago. Others killed in the past year include human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, gunned down on a Moscow street last January; Umar Israilov, a former Kadyrov bodyguard turned whistle-blower, murdered in Vienna in January; and Sulim Yamadayev, a former Chechen commander and Kadyrov foe, murdered in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in March. Mr. Yamadayev's brother, Ruslan, was assassinated in Moscow last September.

"One after another, people whom Kadyrov regards as adversaries keep getting murdered in contract killings that are often conducted in an open and arrogant manner," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Pro et Contra journal published by the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

"This is the price Russia pays for entrusting Chechnya, and the task of maintaining order there, to Kadyrov," she says. "Kadyrov is absolute master of his territory. He rules as he sees fit, without regard for the Russian Constitution or law."

Track suits and pet tiger

Kadyrov, a flamboyant figure who wears a track suit – even on visits to the Kremlin – and keeps a pet tiger in his palatial villa, became de facto ruler of Chechnya after rebels working for the late Chechen terrorist Shamil Basayev murdered his father, Akhmad Kadyrov, in a spectacular 2004 stadium bombing.

He was later eased into Chechnya's presidency by a Kremlin-orchestrated political process that critics say cast a veneer of democracy over the Kremlin policy of "Chechenization," turning over the job of defeating the republic's long-running separatist rebellion to local forces.

In a statement following Estemirova's murder, Kadyrov promised to take over the investigation personally. The pledge inspires no confidence among human rights workers.

"I think [the killing] was a demonstrative political execution, done in broad daylight by Chechnya's paramilitary forces," which answer only to Kadyrov, says Yevgeny Ikhlov, an expert with the Moscow-based Movement for Human Rights, a grass-roots group.

He adds that the manner of the crime emphasizes the Kremlin's powerlessness before the "Frankenstein monster" it has created in Chechnya.

"They might as well have dumped the corpse on Medvedev's doorstep, because it's a pure challenge to federal authorities," he says. "It says: 'We'll do as we please' inside Chechnya."

Russian experts say they expect Estemirova's murder to be added to a long list of similar unsolved crimes, including journalists like Politkovskaya and the American Paul Klebnikov (who also wrote about Chechnya), which have gone through years of legal processes without resolution.

Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev promised Thursday that everything possible would be done to solve what he called "a very complicated murder." But his deputy, Arkady Yevdelev, told journalists that the police would investigate causes other than Estemirova's "public activity," including the possibility that her murder was a "provocation" designed to discredit local authorities, or perhaps a "robbery" or even an unspecified matter connected with her "social life."

"I think this will end in a legal blind alley," says Vladimir Pribilovsky, director of Panorama, an independent Moscow think tank. "It's impossible to investigate anything in Chechnya. The only person who knows [the truth] is Ramzan Kadyrov."

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