Page last updated at 11:19 GMT, Saturday, 18 July 2009 12:19 UK

Chechnya's dissenting voice silenced

The murder of Russian human rights activist Natalia Estemirova shows that life in Chechnya - although more peaceful than it was a decade ago - can still be brutal, says Rupert Wingfield-Hayes.

A picture of Natalia Estemirova
Now Natalia herself has become a victim of the brutality she had worked so fearlessly to document

I cannot pretend to have been a friend of Natalia Estemirova.

I met her only once, in April this year, in her little office in the Chechen capital Grozny.

We sat for an hour sipping tea as she told me about the latest horrors she and her team had uncovered in the dirty war that is still going on in southern Russia.

Outside, a group of rough-looking country folk were sitting in the hallway, their faces strained, their eyes haunted.

Natalia was the person they all came to, to tell of a missing son or husband, of a fresh abduction in the middle of the night, or a house burned in retribution for a rebel attack.

Most recently, Natalia had been investigating a killing by a government death squad in a small village in southern Chechnya.

Last words

Locals told her an old man had been accused of giving one of his sheep to the Islamic insurgents. On 7 July, government troops came to his home, dragged the old man to the village square, and then - as villagers looked on - they shot him in the head.

"This," they were told, "is what will happen to any of you who help the rebels."

Now Natalia herself has become a victim of the brutality she had worked so fearlessly to document.

Map Russia and Chechnya

At 0830 local time on Wednesday, four men dragged her from her apartment in the centre of Grozny.

Passersby saw her being forced into a white Lada. She managed to shout out: "I am being abducted."

They were the last words anybody would hear her say.

Nine hours later, her body was found 30 miles (50km) away, dumped in a forest. She had been shot in the head.

Sitting here in Moscow it is still very hard to comprehend how anybody could murder this softly spoken 50-year-old woman.

The finger of blame has immediately been pointed at Ramzan Kadyrov, the 32-year-old warlord who now runs Chechnya at Moscow's behest.

He has emphatically denied it, and has promised that he will personally take control of the investigation.

That promise has been met with derision by friends and colleagues.

The truth is that Natalia was not short of enemies.

She was born to a Russian mother and Chechen father. When the first Chechen war broke out in the mid-1990s, most with Russian blood fled Grozny.

But she refused to leave.

Critics 'end up dead'

When Moscow began its second onslaught on the city in 1999, she fled.

But a year later she returned and began documenting the abductions, torture and murders of thousands of young Chechen men by federal Russian troops.

Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov
President Kadyrov denies any involvement in Estemirova's death

Later - as Moscow handed its war to its Chechen allies - she took on the local regime.

She was a thorn in the side of many, but particularly of President Kadyrov. And she is not the first of his critics to end up dead.

Three years ago a Chechen man called Umar Israilov turned up in Austria seeking political asylum. For several years he had worked as one of Mr Kadyrov's bodyguards.

In testimony to Austrian authorities he said he had personally witnessed Mr Kadyrov taking part in torture sessions. He also said Mr Kadyrov kept a list of 300 enemies to be killed.

On 13 January this year, Umar Israilov was shot dead outside his Vienna apartment.

Sulim Yamadayev is another of Ramzan Kadyrov's enemies to have met a sticky end.

He used to be one of the most powerful military commanders in Chechnya. But last year he fled to Dubai after falling out with the Chechen president.

On 30 March this year, Sulim Yamadayev was shot dead in the car park of his Dubai apartment. A week later the Dubai police issued an international arrest warrant for a man named Adam Delemkhanov.

It just happens that Mr Delemkhanov is Ramzan Kadyrov's right-hand man. In April when I went to the Grand Mosque in Grozny for Friday prayers, there he was kneeling down right beside Chechnya's president.

Culture of impunity

Anna Politkovskaya
Anna Politkovskaya exposed Russian excesses in Chechnya

My guess is that it will never be proved who ordered Natalia Estemirova's killing. In Russia such murders are rarely solved.

Look at the case of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead outside her Moscow apartment three years ago.

Or of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, gunned down in broad daylight in Moscow this January.

They were both close friends of Natalia Estemirova.

There is what Amnesty International this week called a culture of impunity in Russia.

One by one, the voices of those still willing to stand up and speak out are being silenced.

Without them the outside world will never know about the horrors still being committed in places like Chechnya.

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