Case of Natalia Estemirova’s murder to be decided by European Court

Published: 17 Dec 2015

On 16 November, the European Court of Human Rights communicated the case concerning the killing of Natalia Estemirova, a prominent human rights activist and campaigner, to the Russian Government. The applicant in the case is Natalia’s sister, Svetlana Estemirova, who alleges that Natalia was killed by Russian State servicemen as a result of her role as an investigator in documenting cases of human rights violations in Chechnya. Svetlana is represented by the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre, based at Middlesex University, and the Memorial Human Rights Centre, the Moscow-based NGO where Natalia had worked since 2000, until her death on 15 July 2009.

Natalia Estemirova in Chechnya, 2004
Natalia Estemirova in Chechnya, 2004

Natalia was a well-known human rights defender in Russia, whose work was recognised at home and internationally by a number of awards. She had been working for Memorial HRC as an investigator in cases of alleged kidnappings, torture and extrajudicial killings committed in the course of counter-terrorist operations between 1999 and 2009 by State servicemen in Chechnya. These included a number of cases in which judgments have been handed down by the European Court, such as Musayeva and others v Russia, Alikhadzhiyeva v Russia and Makayeva v Russia. Her involvement in Memorial HRC’s activities reportedly elicited criticism from Chechen authorities, including President Ramzan Kadyrov. According to Natalia’s colleagues, she was called to a meeting with Kadyrov in March 2008, during which he expressed extreme dissatisfaction with her work, and told her that

“he [had had] blood on his hands and that he had killed before and would continue killing bad people and that he [had not been] ashamed of it.

On the morning of 15 July 2009, Natalia left her home in Grozny, Chechnya, to attend several meetings; when she did not arrive, her colleagues at the Grozny branch of Memorial HRC grew concerned, and went to her apartment to check on her. They spoke with two of her neighbours, who said that they had seen Natalia being pushed into a white car; she had shouted that she was being kidnapped. Her body was found at 4.30pm in a field by the motorway near Gazi-Yurt, a village in Ingushetia. She had been shot in the head and chest.

Svetlana complains that Natalia’s murder violated the right to life under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). She argues that the Chechen Republic was firmly under the control of the State authorities at the time of the murder, and that it was impossible to pass freely into Ingushetia, where Natalia’s body was found, as there were government-controlled checkpoints in operation on the motorway between the two locations. She also argues that in the period before Natalia’s murder, the authorities had publicly denounced human rights organisations such as Memorial HRC, and that Natalia had been personally threatened. Additionally, Svetlana complains under the procedural limb of Article 2 that no effective investigation had taken place, as only one of the possible theories into Natalia’s murder had been explored, which held a member of an “unlawful armed group” responsible for her death. The suspect was killed during a special operation on 13 November 2009; however Svetlana argues that it is suspicious that this theory only came to prominence in January 2010, months after the man had already been killed. All other theories, including those concerning the involvement of State agents, were dismissed. Finally, she alleges that she has had no effective remedy, under Article 13 ECHR.

The Court has asked the Russian Government to respond to a number of factual and legal questions about Natalia’s death and their actions following it, as well as to provide a copy of the investigation file into her abduction and death.

Natalia’s kidnapping and murder were not isolated events and, tragically, human rights activists operating in the region remain at risk of violence. A positive European Court judgment in this case will be an important step not only towards seeking accountability for Natalia’s death, but also to ensuring greater protection for those who defend the rights of others.

On 16 March 2016, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks submitted a third-party intervention in Natalia’s case.