Chechnya: 'Open season' for killing rights activists?

Natalia Estemirova, who has long documented abuses by government-backed militias, is the fourth prominent critic of Kremlin policies to be killed in three years.

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Rights groups on Thursday condemned the killing in Chechnya of prominent human rights activist Natalia Estemirova, who has long documented abuses by government-backed militias there.

The killing has drawn attention to a worrying trend in which critics of Kremlin-installed Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov have been harassed or murdered. Human rights groups have blamed Mr. Kadyrov and his followers for abusing innocent civilians in their counterinsurgency campaign against Islamic militants. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev expressed "outrage" and called for an inquiry, reports the BBC.

Ms. Estemirova was abducted Wednesday as she left her home in Grozny, Chechyna's capital, the BBC report adds. Her body was later found with gunshot wounds in neighboring Ingushetia. (Click here for a map of the region.)

Ms Estemirova ... had been gathering evidence - for the Russian human rights organization, Memorial - of a campaign of house-burnings by government-backed militiamen.

She was known to be a fierce political opponent of Chechnya's government.

Reuters reported that suspicion for the killing has quickly fallen on the Chechen president. Kadyrov was put in place by Vladimir Putin and has ruled restive Chechnya with an iron grip.

Memorial's chairman Oleg Orlov pointed the blame at ... Kadyrov, a former rebel turned Kremlin loyalist.

"I know, I am sure of it, who is guilty for the murder of Natalia.... Ramzan already threatened Natalia, insulted her, considered her a personal enemy."

The Guardian's Tom Parfit wrote a personal recollection of Estemirova, noting she was the latest of several critics of Kremlin policies in Chechnya who have been brutally silenced.

Kadyrov, a ... former rebel who came over to Russia's side and took power in 2007, is notorious for controlling thousands of armed devotees known as the "kadyrovtsy", who are now supposedly absorbed into official force structures. He brooks no dissent in his republic, and the kadyrovtsy have repeatedly been accused of torture, kidnappings and extra-judicial killings.

One person who wrote about their excesses was the campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya (who was assassinated in 2006). Another who investigated abuses was the human rights lawyer, Stanislav Markelov (shot twice in the back of the head in central Moscow in January).
A third detractor, who told reporters that Kadyrov personally tortured him, was a former member of the president's bodyguard, Umar Israilov (shot dead in Vienna in January). A fourth, and Kadyrov's most vocal critic inside Chechnya, was Estemirova.

Human Rights Watch said that the murders of government opponents in Chechnya is a troubling trend, according to Reuters

"It seems to be open season on anyone trying to highlight the appalling human rights abuses in Chechnya... Ensuring her murder does not go unpunished would help to break the vicious cycle of abuse and impunity in Chechnya," said HRW's director Kenneth Roth.

In a report released last month, Human Rights Watch documented a pattern of house-burnings carried out by Chechen law enforcement against the families of alleged terrorists

"Russia has said its 'counterterrorism operation' in Chechnya is over, but human rights violations there certainly aren't," said Tanya Lokshina, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Russia office. "Burning down peoples' homes for the alleged sins of their families is a criminal tactic, and there is no reason why the government can't put a stop to it and hold the perpetrators accountable."
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