Russia's human rights activists are bowed but not broken.
The mood was dour at a small ceremony on July 15 in Moscow marking the one-year anniversary of the death of Natasha Estemirova, the human rights activist whose abduction and murder in Chechnya last year shocked the world. It was a gathering of friends, journalists, academics, and colleagues from Memorial, the human rights organization that Estemirova used to lead — a small group of people, all of whom were pessimistic about the way forward. Twelve months after her death, Estemirova’s murderers still have not been brought to justice, and the continued persecution of and attacks against activists working in Chechnya have rendered Memorial’s broader struggle for justice impossible.
Estemirova’s death cut short not only the activist’s life but also Chechnya’s hopes for improved human rights. The eulogies made it clear just how much Estemirova is missed and how fractured the movement now finds itself without her. "She was the driving force behind every major human rights abuse case we monitored in Chechnya," one eulogy proclaimed. "We never learned to live without her." "They first killed Natasha, and now they are trying to kill our activity," said Yekatena Sokirianskaia, Estemirova’s friend and colleague at Memorial. "Chechen authorities declared an open war against us."
The first signs of trouble came immediately after Estemirova’s death. Memorial’s chairman, Oleg Orlov, publicly blamed the murder on Ramzan Kadyrov, because the Chechen president had reportedly made death threats against Estemirova on numerous occasions. But in response, Kadyrov filed a successful defamation suit against Memorial for damaging his "honor and dignity." Despite the suit and the fines that followed, Orlov and his center continued to demand an investigation into Kadyrov’s involvement.
Other Memorial activities have been severely hampered by threats and violence over the past year. A month after Estemirova’s murder, the bullet-riddled bodies of the head of a local children’s charity and her husband, abducted from their Grozny office, were found in the trunk of their car. People in uniforms wearing baseball hats with the letters KRA on the brim — Kadyrov Ramzan Akhmadovich (the Chechen president’s full name) — took to loitering outside Memorial’s office. Day and night, Volga cars with dark-tinted windows followed Memorial’s activists through Grozny as they followed up on abduction cases.
Kadyrov himself has even appeared to be urging local militia members toward violence through his public statements on Chechen television. In one interview, the president described Memorial as an anti-Russian organization helping terrorists and damaging the country’s reputation. "There are certain people who call themselves ‘human rights defenders,’ who actually help these militant scum," he said. Later, not satisfied with winning the defamation suit alone, Kadyrov also filed a criminal complaint against Orlov for slander, which could bring a three-year prison sentence. A verdict is still pending.
The criminal suit, Orlov and his colleagues thought, was a signal to Chechnya’s militias to begin outright attacks against them. And Memorial decided to evacuate its key activists to Norway, France, and the United States. In most cases, the evacuation had to be arranged immediately. Some members had only a few minutes to assemble travel documents, grab their families, and escape.
None of this has stopped human rights work in Chechnya altogether; groups such as Human Rights Watch and Memorial still come to the area to document abuses. But the job has grown even harder. There are fewer researchers and limited resources, and the conditions of the work are more difficult and dangerous than ever. Positive results are equally rare. And without Estemirova, who had the ability to always seem in charge even under the worst of circumstances, Memorial itself looks like a victim — hardly able to help others."We often hear from people: You could not protect your Natasha, so how can you help me?" Sokirianskaia said. "People choked by fear for their beloved ones feel reluctant to tell us about their troubles."
Two months ago, Human Rights Watch and Memorial representatives met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev about the human rights crisis in Chechnya and the threatening statements made by the Chechen government toward Memorial researchers. "President Medvedev promised to take measures and create normal working conditions for human rights defenders," Tanya Lokshina, a Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch, told me. "We urged him to end the rampant impunity . . . but we are still waiting for the Kremlin to make concrete steps in that direction."
Instead, on July 3, as Memorial and Human Rights Watch were preparing their commemorations of the anniversary of Estemirova’s death, they heard Kadyrov on television describing Memorial as "the enemies of people, law, and the state."
Despite the threats and challenges, Memorial and Human Rights Watch are not going anywhere. Estemirova wouldn’t have it any other way. "We are all hostages of our dignity. Natasha could not stop reporting murders and kidnappings," said Lokshina. "Each of us feels a moral responsibility to continue our work in Natasha’s memory."