Why a killing in Chechnya is an international issue
The day before, Natalya Estemirova had seen off two colleagues from Moscow. Yelena Milashina, a reporter with the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and Tanya Lokshina, an advocate with the international group Human Rights Watch, had traveled to Chechnya on separate assignments. Like many visiting journalists and human rights defenders, Milashina and Lokshina had stayed with Estemirova. Her Grozny apartment had become a headquarters for such visitors; Russian and international journalists often made it their first stop. Estemirova was their primary source, consultant, fixer, translator, protector.
Estemirova was to travel to Moscow shortly, Milashina recalled later, so on July 14, 2009, the friends said goodbye with the words: “I’ll see you soon.”
The next morning, as Estemirova was leaving for work, four men forced her into a white Lada sedan. She cried out that she was being kidnapped, but the car sped off. Her body, three bullets to the chest, two to the head, was found eight hours later, ditched along a road near the village of Gazi-Yurt in neighboring Ingushetia. Witnesses saw the kidnappers, according to news reports, but they were too afraid to speak. Despite ostensibly tight security along the Chechnya-Ingushetia border, the kidnappers passed through guarded checkpoints undisturbed.
A terrible, terrible thing, but, really, what makes this death so important? After all, tens of thousands have been killed in Chechnya over 15 brutal years of separatist conflict. Why should this murder be an international issue?
Estemirova, 50, was one of the few expert witnesses to the human toll in Chechnya. Writing for Novaya Gazeta and the news Web site Kavkazsky Uzel, and reporting for Human Rights Watch and the Russian rights group Memorial, she had accumulated a damning body of evidence linking torture, disappearances, murders, arsons, and punitive violence to Chechen authorities and, particularly, to the militia of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.
“A question hangs over her execution, the most recent in a series of killings of those still willing to chronicle Chechnya’s horrors,” wrote New York Times reporter C.J. Chivers, who said Estemirova had helped him on many stories. “Is the accounting of the human toll now over? Without her, will Chechnya become, like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, a place where no one risks asking hard questions openly?”
Estemirova is among 19 journalists murdered in retaliation for their work in Russia since 2000, CPJ research shows. Murder convictions have been won in only one case and, even there, the masterminds have evaded punishment. In September, a CPJ delegation traveled to Moscow to issue a report, Anatomy of Injustice, that examined Russia’s failure to solve journalist murders. In Moscow, we met with government officials and top investigators to discuss our findings and seek their commitment to bringing thorough, independent prosecutions.
While our meetings did not produce breaking news, we left with the sense that at least some officials recognized the need to reverse this record of impunity. Their expressed commitment to collaborate with international partners—as they pledged to do in the case of slain U.S. editor Paul Klebnikov—was an encouraging note. Officials with the Russian Investigative Committee, the law enforcement arm of the Prosecutor General’s office, agreed to meet with CPJ in 2010 to update their progress in these unsolved murders.
But great skepticism is warranted. Throughout the decade, Kremlin and regional authorities have sought to obstruct, marginalize, and demean their critics. Probing journalists have been effectively banned from influential federal television channels—the main news source for most Russians—and pushed to limited-audience print and Internet publications. These journalists are vulnerable to attack given their isolation and the official hostility to their work. This culture has caused extensive damage: Coverage of important topics such as corruption, human rights abuses, and organized crime goes largely unnoticed by the public. Impunity in attacks on journalists induces further self-censorship among colleagues.
CPJ research has shown that justice has been thwarted by systemic shortcomings at every level—political, investigative, prosecutorial, and judicial. Investigations of the murders of journalists have been consistently opaque, often compromised by internal conflicts of interest, and frequently subjected to undue political influence. Take the case of Maksim Maksimov, a St. Petersburg reporter who was investigating corruption in the local Interior Ministry when he disappeared in June 2004. In the hands of the same local authorities Maksimov had been examining, the murder probe went nowhere. Investigators made no evident effort to follow up on allegations that local officers themselves were involved in Maksimov’s disappearance.
Time and again, CPJ research shows, investigators failed to pursue work-related motives. In the few cases that reached the courts, prosecutors brought weak or even bogus cases to trial. In the corruption-ridden city of Togliatti, for instance, investigators ignored journalism-related motives in the killings of Valery Ivanov and Aleksei Sidorov, consecutive editors of the muckraking newspaper Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye. After coercing a confession, prosecutors tried an innocent man in the murder of Sidorov. The man was acquitted, and the case is unsolved.
At times, important evidence has been lost or concealed. Novaya Gazeta editor Yuri Shchekochikhin died in 2003 from a rare dermatological condition that struck as he was investigating a high-level corruption scheme. Officials at the government-run clinic where the journalist had been treated sealed the medical records, calling them a state secret. The records, eventually given to a Moscow prosecutor, then vanished.
A historian by education and a Chechen-Russian by descent, Estemirova possessed the intellectual rigor to methodically document facts and the innate drive to fight injustice. Living under a regime that represses women, she wore heels and red lipstick and looked men straight in the eye. In a profile published three days after her death, The Times’ Chivers described the importance of her work: “To the families whose pain she worked to relieve and whose stories she forced the world to see, she was a resolute champion. To the men whose crimes she exposed, case by case, with a quiet composure, she was a confounding enemy, a feminine nemesis they could neither fathom nor dissuade.”
Apart from her own reporting on dangerous assignments, Estemirova was a go-to person for outside journalists and human rights defenders. “This loss is absolutely irreplaceable, not only for us, her friends, but for [Russian] society and for the world. Because if it weren’t for Natasha, nobody would know what really goes on in Chechnya,” Lokshina told the Russian service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Lokshina, who had just collaborated with Estemirova on a report documenting punitive house burnings by Chechen law enforcement, went on to say: “Of course there are people living in Moscow and abroad who try to cover Chechnya, but even if they travel to the region, they are still tourists. … Natasha lived there, she was in the epicenter of events, and she guided us.”
Her murder immediately crippled reporting in Chechnya. The Grozny branch of Memorial, which Estemirova headed, halted activities for nearly six months, while Novaya Gazeta announced it would indefinitely suspend trips to Chechnya because it could not ensure the safety of its reporters. In microcosm, the impact of Estemirova’s murder reflects the chilling effect that impunity has had on media coverage overall in Russia.
International groups were also harmed by the killing. Her reports for Memorial were regularly used by the United Nations and the Council of Europe, for instance, in preparing their own human rights strategies with regard to Chechnya and the North Caucasus, Lokshina told CPJ.
Estemirova’s colleagues believe she was killed in retaliation for her documentation of official abuses in Chechnya. Authorities, including Kadyrov, had repeatedly summoned her to “meetings” intended to threaten and intimidate her into stopping her work, according to colleagues and news reports. At one such meeting, in March 2008, Kadyrov asked Estemirova a series of questions about her personal life and family, including her teenage daughter. Kadyrov told Estemirova that day: “Yes, my arms are in blood up to my elbows. And I am not ashamed of it. I killed and will kill bad people. We are fighting the enemies of the people,” Human Rights Watch reported. Estemirova’s daughter was relocated after that meeting; the journalist herself took brief trips away from home.
But, as always, she returned to her work. A July 17, 2009, New York Times report said that Estemirova had been summoned three months earlier for questioning by Chechen police, “an incident that so worried her co-workers at Memorial that they reported it to the Council of Europe.” The Times also noted a meeting between Estemirova’s Moscow-based Memorial supervisor, Oleg Orlov, and Nurdi Nukhazhiyev, the pro-Kadyrov Chechen human rights ombudsman. Speaking five days before Estemirova was killed, according to the account, Nukhazhiyev told Orlov that high-ranking officials were “extremely dissatisfied” with Memorial’s most recent investigations.
Although President Dmitry Medvedev condemned the killing, Kadyrov’s reaction left reason to believe that justice would not be served. Immediately after the murder, Kadyrov said he was taking the investigation “under personal control” and declared the killers “deserve no support and must be punished as the cruelest of criminals,” the news agency Interfax reported. He sent a different message a month later, in an interview with the Russian service of RFE/RL. Responding to a suggestion that independent, outside investigators might be better suited to handle the probe, Kadyrov told RFE/RL: “If the law works here, why should we invite outside people? … If Kadyrov is guilty, if Kadyrov’s people are guilty, let it be proved.
“Why would Kadyrov murder a woman who no one needs?” he asked. “She never had any dignity, honor, conscience.” Kadyrov went on to file a defamation lawsuit against Memorial’s Orlov, who had publicly accused the Chechen president of involvement in Estemirova’s kidnapping and murder.
In her 10 years of reporting on the Second Chechen War, Estemirova documented and publicized human rights abuses by all parties in the conflict, including the separatists. Her work could have provided a number of parties with motive to kill. But can an independent investigation truly be conducted by Chechen authorities when its iron-fisted president says “no one needs” the victim? Can anyone really believe local investigators have the freedom to examine work-related motives, including Estemirova’s reporting on official human rights abuses? CPJ and others have called on the federal-level Prosecutor General’s Office headed by Yuri Chaika and the Investigative Committee headed by Aleksandr Bastrykin to assign the case to independent detectives from outside the North Caucasus region, and to require regular progress reports from them.
Fundamental steps can be taken in the other, failed probes. Closed investigations must be reopened; investigations that are open in name but stalled in practical terms must be restarted. Under Russia’s centralized law enforcement system, federal officials in Moscow have the ultimate practical responsibility for solving journalist murders; they must demand specific progress reports from their subordinates at the district and regional levels. Russia’s top leaders, President Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, share the moral responsibility for Russia’s impunity record; they must hold their appointees accountable for progress in journalist killings. Medvedev and Putin should also publicly state their recognition of the important role independent news-gatherers, investigative reporters, and critical commentators play in Russia’s society.
Although extreme in its animosity, Kadyrov’s reaction to the Estemirova murder was similar to the views expressed by other Russian officials in response to earlier media killings: Broadly promise to investigate, but diminish the crime, marginalize the victim, and dismiss the possibility of official involvement. Even as he pledged an investigation into the 2006 killing of Novaya Gazeta reporter Anna Politkovskaya, then-President Putin called her work “insignificant” and said he could not “imagine that anybody currently in office could come to the idea of organizing such a brutal crime.”
Politkovskaya, like Estemirova, had devoted her career to documenting human rights crimes in Chechnya. She was threatened, jailed, forced into exile, and poisoned, CPJ research shows. Her last story, published after her death, detailed the alleged torture of Chechen civilians by military units loyal to Kadyrov. The slaying of Politkovskaya in her Moscow apartment building remains unsolved.
The international community has a clear interest in fighting impunity in the Estemirova case and in all Russian journalist killings. Without reporters uncovering facts about human rights abuses, politics, crime, and corruption, those sensitive issues are concealed from the world. A closed society cannot be regarded as a reliable neighbor and partner in the community of free, democratic nations.
While in Moscow, CPJ heard a resounding message—from victims’ families, colleagues, and press freedom advocates—that international attention to Russian journalists at risk can help prevent recurring attacks. “Journalists are always more protected when their fates are monitored from abroad,” said Musa Muradov, a North Caucasus correspondent for the business daily Kommersant and a 2003 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award. While such monitoring carries no guarantees, he added, “to a certain extent, it can save us.”
Veteran press freedom advocates Aleksei Simonov with the Glasnost Defense Foundation and Oleg Panfilov with the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations—whose organizations regularly document attacks on the press in Russia—told CPJ that international attention is vital in eliciting responses from Russian officials. “If 10 Russian press freedom groups got together and wrote a protest letter to top Kremlin officials, there will be no reaction,” Panfilov told CPJ. “Russian authorities only respond to international criticism.”
Rimma Maksimova, the mother of the St. Petersburg reporter Maksim Maksimov, also noted the importance of international scrutiny in breaking through a culture of media indifference and public apathy in Russia. “For five years, I have been bumping my head into an impervious wall,” she said of her repeated efforts to talk with investigators about her son’s case. “No one talks to me, no one responds to my requests for information.”
The international community has a number of tools to prod Russian authorities. Through its membership in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the pan-European human rights monitor, and in the Council of Europe, Russia is obligated to comply with principles on freedom of expression outlined in the European Convention on Human Rights. The council should ensure that Russia fully complies with the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights in freedom of expression cases. In the event that Russia does not comply with its obligations, the council should use penalty mechanisms up to suspension of membership.
Though not a member of the European Union, Russia has partnership agreements with the EU. The two parties regularly hold human rights consultations, known as Human Rights Dialogues, during which press freedom issues are discussed. As part of CPJ’s September mission on combating impunity, a delegation traveled to Brussels and met with EU representatives responsible for placing impunity on the EU-Russia agenda for upcoming Human Rights Dialogues. We urged that the EU Mission in Russia monitor press freedom and apply to Russian journalists the EU guidelines on human rights defenders. Under the guidelines, the EU provides official support and resources to human rights defenders. In our meetings with representatives of the European Parliament, we emphasized the need for closer scrutiny of Russia’s impunity record through subcommittee hearings.
Attention to Russia’s impunity record is also needed from the U.N. Human Rights Council and, in the United States, from the Obama administration and Congress. World leaders must engage their Russian counterparts and seek results at every opportunity. If results are lacking, international monitors should be dispatched to conduct independent, fact-finding missions. Those should end in timely reports with clear, practical recommendations; where violations are proved, international institutions must not shy away from sanctioning Russia.
When the subject of impunity is raised, Russian leaders have often gone on the offensive, demanding the world stop meddling in the country’s internal affairs, and suggesting the nation’s transition from Soviet collectivism to a modern market economy has been smooth compared to, say, America’s Wild West era. But this is not the Wild West—this is Russia in the 21st century, an influential country claiming an equal seat at the table of global leaders. In a world more interconnected and interdependent than ever, that seat comes with a portfolio of privileges and obligations.
The need to address the issue is urgent. Impunity emboldens enemies of the press to continue practicing the rawest form of censorship. In Russia, the maxim “No person, no problem” reflects both the philosophy of the murderers and the failure of the justice system to rein them in. It also spells out the vulnerability of Russian journalists who take on risky subjects—like lone soldiers in a battlefield, they make easy targets for elimination. It’s worth remembering that they are fighting for everyone. World leaders in the European Union, in the United Nations, in the U.S. State Department and U.S. Congress are obliged to back them, to press the case with the Kremlin, and to demand President Medvedev and his government stand for the rule of law and on the side of humanity.
Nina Ognianova, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, led a CPJ mission to Moscow and Brussels in September 2009. She is lead author of CPJ’s September 2009 report, Anatomy of Injustice, which examined the unsolved murders of journalists in Russia from 2000 to 2009. CPJ’s Global Campaign Against Impunity is underwritten by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.