The death of Natalia

I can’t bear seeing these pictures of a bare-chested Vladimir Putin on horseback. As well as beefing up his macho image, the one of him feeding his mount suggests a sensitivity, a gentler, caring side that, alas, is severely lacking in Russia’s PM. It’s a very shrewd but cynical tactic to have released the photographs for public consumption. I’ve always believed animal lovers to have a compassionate streak, and when I saw Putin kissing a horse (in a previous picture) I hesitated… for a fraction of a second.

But no! This was the man (then President) who refused for three days to issue a statement on the brutal contract killing of courageous journalist Anna Politkovskaya. When he was finally drawn, he callously remarked that “Politkovskaya's political influence inside the country was of little significance.” The writer was shot dead on 7 October 2006, her body found slumped in an elevator outside her apartment in Moscow. At the time of her death, she was working on an article about torture in Chechnya that implicated Ramzan Kadyrov, then the pro-Kremlin Chechan Prime Minister. After her murder, rumours began to circulate that Kadyrov had ordered the contract killing to coincide with Putin’s Birthday.

Russia bears comparison with Mexico; a country that, in recent months, has been referred to as “a failed state”. One can see a similar pattern of violence in Russia, and in particular in the republic of Chechnya, where violence and corruption has created a lawlessness that Moscow seems increasingly to be unable to keep in check. On coming to power, Putin ordered a ground offensive in 1999 that was to become the Second Chechen War. Russia’s superior military power, its indiscriminate bombing and sheer brute force severely disabled the Chechen resistance and Putin installed a pro-Moscow Chechen regime under Akhmad Kadyrov that lasted until his assassination in 2004. His son, Ramzan Kadyrov, succeeded him, becoming President of Chechnya in February 2007. Over the past decade, Amnesty has published a horrific list of human rights abuses taking place in Chechnya, including extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and abductions, torture in unofficial detention centres and arbitrary detentions. It is these abuses that Politkovskaya was so intent on reporting and bringing to the world’s attention and that, few dispute, resulted in her murder.

And now, almost three years later, we are mourning the loss of another courageous female activist who has been slayed in a contract killing for her work. Natalia Estemirova, an award-winning Russian human rights activist and freelance journalist, was murdered on 15 July 2009.
Estemirova worked with Memorial, one of Russia’s best known and oldest human rights group. She was a close friend and colleague of Politkovskaya and they investigated some of the same cases together, writing about them in the independent Novaya Gazeta and other local papers. Estemirova was half-Russian and half-Chechen and had often interpreted for Politkovskaya. In October 2007, she came to England to accept the  inaugural Anna Politkovskaya Award from the Reach All Women in War campaign group; an award established to honour female human rights defenders from conflict zones who stand up for the victims of conflict, often at a great personal risk.

On the morning of 15 July, Estemirova was reportedly seized by four unknown men as she left for work and was bundled into the back of a white car. Neighbours at her house in Grozny, Chechnya's capital, heard her shout: "I'm being kidnapped." Later her body was found slumped on the main road of a village in Ingushetia, the neighbouring republic to Chechnya. She had been shot in the head and chest. The news of her death, coming so soon after Politkovskya’s, is heartbreaking. Just, fifty years old, Estemirova leaves behind a fifteen-year-old daughter.

There are many similarities between the lives and deaths of these two courageous women. Both were investigating human rights abuses in Chechnya. Both would listen to the stories of Chechen victims, who would tell them how their relatives had been shot by Kadyrov's troops, or who had been kidnapped and tortured or who had just disappeared. Both wrote articles for Novaya Gazeta, well-known for its critical and coverage of Russian political and social affairs, and both collaborated with human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.  They were scathing critics of Kadyrov, who is a close ally of Vladimir Putin. Their murders bear all the hall marks of contract killings and in both cases their colleagues have pointed the finger at Chechnya's president.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), since 2000, under Putin’s tenure, seventeen journalists have been murdered for their work or have died under suspicious circumstances in Russia. They have been murdered with impunity; in only one case have the killers been convicted, and the masterminds remain unpunished.

When Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev, backed by Putin, became President, he pledged to enforce the rule of law by investigating crimes against the press. But according to CPJ, attacks on journalists continue unchecked. In the past year alone, CPJ has documented work-related violence against 19 journalists in various parts of the country. English PEN has reported on four journalists killed in the opening months of 2009.

One has to wonder why the most powerful man in Russia today, who is trying to soften his brutish image by posing in photos with horses, cannot stem the tidal wave of murders of journalists, lawyers and human rights activists in his country. Why do these courageous men and women keep on being killed and why do the perpetrators never get caught?

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