The Guardian/UK, July 14, 2010
The murder of Estemirova – who was kidnapped outside her home in Chechnya, shot several times and dumped in a field in neighbouring Ingushetia a year ago tomorrow – provoked international outrage.
Her colleagues say that detectives have failed to interview key witnesses and refused to take DNA samples from suspects to compare with human material found on Estemirova’s body.
“The investigation started out promisingly, collecting vital clues, but then it froze,” said Elena Milashina, a reporter from the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, who knew Estemirova and has followed the investigation.
Estemirova, 51 at the time of her death, lived and worked in the Chechen capital, Grozny. Full-scale hostilities between separatists and federal troops ended in Chechnya in 2001, but an underground war between Islamist rebels and pro-Moscow forces has dragged on.
Estemirova wrote about people who acted with impunity on both sides, but specialised in recording the transgressions of militia under the control of the republic’s Kremlin-appointed president, Ramzan Kadyrov, who often try to flush out guerrillas by targeting their civilian relatives.
Kadyrov, who called Estemirova a “woman without honour or shame” shortly after her death, has vehemently denied involvement in the assassination.
Investigators now say they have solved Estemirova’s murder, finding she was killed by a boyevik (rebel fighter) called Alkhazur Bashayev from Shalazhi village in central Chechnya. Bashayev was allegedly upset by reports Estemirova wrote about his armed group for the Russian human rights organisation Memorial, whose office she headed in Grozny.
This theory rests on investigators’ claims earlier this year that they had found a rebel arms cache in Shalazhi including the pistol used in the killing, a car fitting descriptions of that used to kidnap Estemirova, part of a silencer in the boot of the car which fitted the pistol, and then the owner of the car, who said he had sold it to Bashayev.
Bashayev – too conveniently, say critics – cannot be questioned because he was killed in a shootout with security forces last autumn.
In fact, many observers suspect a cover-up. They think Estemirova, known to friends as Natasha, was killed for the reports she wrote on wayward law enforcement agencies – perhaps even those filed in the days before her death.
One report described how officers in the police department of Chechnya’s Kurchaloy district had publicly executed Rizvan Albekov, an unarmed man suspected of helping the rebels, on 7 July.
“Natasha must have struggled with her captors because investigators obtained DNA samples of three people from under her fingernails,” said Milashina. “Why have no samples been taken from the police officers in Kurchaloy for comparative study?”
Critics say there are other glaring errors: Estemirova never visited Shalazhi or wrote about Bashayev; and investigators have not questioned any of the witnesses who saw her being kidnapped near her home in Grozny.
Oleg Orlov, the head of Memorial, said investigators must seek Estemirova’s killers among those she exposed.
“Above all, the investigation needs to determine who were the guilty parties in the crimes that Natasha was examining,” he said. “So far, they have not looked at a single case she handled in the year she died.”