The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled on Tuesday 31 August that although it found no evidence of Russian state involvement in the 2009 murder of human rights activist Natalia Estemirova, the authorities had failed to effectively investigate the case. Estemirova had risen to prominence within Russia and abroad owing to her work for the human rights organisation, Memorial, in the Chechen capital of Grozny. Since the start of the Second Chechen War in 1999, she had collected evidence on human rights violations in Chechnya and came to work on hundreds of high-profile cases such as alleged kidnappings, torture, and murder.
At the time of her own kidnapping and assassination on 15 July 2009, she had been investigating “extremely sensitive” cases, according to Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch. Estemirova’s body was found later that day with bullet wounds in the head and chest in the neighbouring Republic of Ingushetia. Russian prosecutors named insurgent Alkhazur Bashaev as the likely murderer, claiming he sought revenge for accusations the activist had made against him. Despite ordering his arrest, Basahev’s whereabouts remain unknown. Over a decade on, the case brought by Natalia’s sister, Svetlana, has brought only partial resolution. The ECHR found that there were “no signs of the involvement of state agents”, as had been claimed by Estemirova’s former colleagues, but did rule that Russia had failed to conduct a full and thorough investigation and ordered the state to pay Svetlana €20,000 in compensation.
The seven-judge panel, explaining their unanimous decision, noted that “much of [the] evidence was hearsay” and there were no signs that state agents had been involved. For example, “the abduction had not been part of a special operation, no military vehicles had been used, it had not been perpetrated in the presence of police officers, and so forth.” Natalia’s daughter, Lana Estemirova, told the Moscow Times that “this is not the outcome I was expecting” and described the judgment as “dissatisfactory”, “upsetting”, and “infuriating”. This can only have been heightened by the same judge’s findings that “certain contradictions in the expert evidence remain unsolved” and that the Russian government’s refusal to hand over the entirety of its investigatory documents to the court “undermined [the ECHR’s] ability to assess the quality of the investigation.” There has been no immediate response from the Russian authorities.
The case brought by Svetlana, and an article published in Novaya Gazeta by Natalia’s former colleagues last year, have both alleged the involvement of Chechnya’s authorities. In the context of the Chechen conflict in this period, such a claim is not extraordinary. Natalia’s own work focused on human rights abuses by Russian government troops and paramilitaries in the republic, and Memorial’s chairman Oleg Orlov claimed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov made an open threat to Estemirova shortly before her murder: “Yes, my hands are up to the elbows in blood. And I am not ashamed of that. I have killed and will kill bad people.” However, Kadyrov has always denied accusations of his involvement and sees it as an attempt to “undermine the system” after the Chechen conflict started to subside and the government operation in Chechnya officially ended in April 2009. The ECHR’s judgment may offer a route to justice if it is respected by both sides. Russia, as a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, and thus subject to the court’s rulings, and human rights organisations such as Memorial, must both fundamentally place trust in the judgments of the ECHR.
The other side of the coin, therefore, requires a commitment from Russian authorities to thoroughly investigate and seek justice for the murder of Natalia Estemirova. If Alkhazur Bashaev is responsible, he must be publicly seen to face the consequences. If a full and effective investigation finds others to be culpable, they must likewise be brought to justice. An investigation that does not implicate the authorities should now be considered more legitimate than the initial one, but it must demonstrably address the “contradictions in the expert evidence” that the ECHR feel remains unsolved.
Such justice is a fundamental element of the continual cathartic processes which follow the conflict. As Tanya Lokshina said on the 10-year anniversary of Natalia’s murder, the government’s inaction is a “black stain that perpetuates human rights abuses in Chechnya.” Justice must be done, and it must be seen to be done if the climate of fear surrounding human rights activism is ever to dissipate in Chechnya.
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