Russia's secret services may be shielding the mastermind behind rights campaigner Natalya Estemirova's murder, according to an independent report submitted to President Dmitry Medvedev.
Still more questions than answers in Estemirova case
An independent report on the murder of rights campaigner Natalya Estemirova suggests that the secret services may be shielding the activist's killer.
The report, disclosed to the media Thursday by the Russian Presidential Council on Human Rights, says the inquiry into the murder had reached a dead end and that investigators willfully ignored vital information that could have led to the killers.
The award-winning human rights campaigner, who worked for the Russian rights group Memorial, was slain two years ago, on July 15, 2009, after being kidnapped and bundled off in a car outside her home in the Chechen capital, Grozny.
Estemirova was a key source of information on human rights abuses taking place in Russia's north Caucasus republic of Chechnya and was one of the few rights activists working in the war-ravaged region willing to speak out publicly about abductions and killings involving local security forces.
At the time, Estemirova's colleagues at Memorial blamed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov for the killing. Kadyrov, for his part, sued Memorial chairman Oleg Orlov for libel and won the case against him. A Moscow court, last month, acquitted Orlov of defamation after nearly two years of hearings.
The Chechen leader Kadyrov is considered a prime suspect by rights groups
Investigators claimed they had solved the crime
Six months after the murder, investigators announced that they had practically solved the crime, saying Estemirova had been killed by Chechen rebels. The announcement followed the discovery of a weapons cache at a house in a Chechen village, which included the pistol used in the murder. Police also found a car allegedly similar to the one used to kidnap Estemirova.
A closer inspection of the evidence cast doubt on the hasty conclusions of the investigators, according to Memorial's Aleksandr Cherkasov.
"Absent from the car were any traces of a struggle, which would demonstrate that Natalya and her potential killers really were in the car. There was no blood, no hair or sweat, no fibers from clothing," Cherkasov said.
Prior to her murder, Estemirova had been investigating police officers involved in the public execution of a Chechen man suspected of collaborating with the rebels. These policemen could therefore also have had a motive to kill her.
DNA was discovered under Estemirova's fingernails belonging to three people. However, these samples were never compared to DNA from other potential suspects, other than the man whose home had housed the weapons cache and pistol.
Orlov doubts the official story
He was a rebel fighter named Alkhazur Bashayev, who was reportedly killed in a clash with police in the autumn of 2009. Bashayev had left his house for good in the spring of 2009 to join the rebels in the mountains and the house had been empty since then.
"Everybody knew that Alkhazur was a rebel; that he was in the mountains. You must be an idiot to build a weapons arsenal in your house, with all the heavy weapons and then come here to this empty house to leave this pistol there, plus an identity card. Imagine this. This is absolute nonsense," said Oleg Orlov from Memorial.
Orlov continues to hold Ramzan Kadyrov responsible for what happened, first of all because the Chechen leader calls human rights campaigners accomplices of the rebels - and second, because the Chechen leader, a former rebel himself, joined forces with the Kremlin.
Kadyrov's rule has been accompanied by repeated accusations of police abductions and torture of his various foes. But, his years in power have also seen Moscow regain control over a region plagued by a Muslim insurgency.
Author: Geert Groot Koerkamp (gb)
Editor: Andreas Illmer