European Court to examine whether defamation claim violated Memorial HRC’s right to freedom of expression

Published: 8 Jan 2016

The Russian Government has been asked by the European Court of Human Rights to respond to allegations that it violated the right to freedom of expression of Memorial Human Rights Centre (HRC)[1] and Oleg Orlov (Chairman of the organisation’s Board).

The case relates to a statement published by Mr Orlov and Memorial HRC (the applicants) following the death of renowned human rights activist Natalia Estemirova. The President of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, successfully sued the applicants for defamation, seeking substantial damages and to have the statements retracted.  In their application to the European Court, the applicants complain that this violated their right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Memorial HRC and EHRAC jointly represent the applicants.

Background

Natalia Estemirova, a human rights activist who had worked with Memorial HRC for nine years, was killed on 15 July 2009. It is alleged that she was killed by Russian State servicemen for her investigations into cases of alleged kidnappings, torture and extrajudicial killings committed in the course of counter-terrorist operations between 1999 and 2009 in Chechnya.[2] On the day of her death, Memorial HRC published a statement regarding Natalia Estemirova’s murder on their website, accompanied by a statement by Mr Orlov (see below).

Mr Kadyrov’s claims that the statements were defamatory were upheld by the Moscow City Court. The court ordered Memorial HRC to publish a disclaimer declaring the statements were untrue, and to pay Mr Kadyrov 50,000 roubles in damages. Mr Orlov was also ordered to pay Mr Kadyrov 20,000 roubles.

Mr Orlov and Memorial HRC took their case to the European Court in July 2010. They allege that there has been an interference with their right to freedom of expression, and particularly their right to impart information and ideas (Article 10 §1), that the interference was not “prescribed by law”, nor was it “necessary in a democratic society” (Article 10 §2).

On 7 January 2016, the European Court of Human Rights requested the Russian State’s observations. The Government must submit its reply by 3 May 2016.


Statement by Memorial HRC:

Today our friend and colleague, our loved one, has been killed.

For almost ten years Natasha has been a leading officer of Memorial in the North Caucasus, first and foremost in Chechnya. She has not only collected information about violations of human rights. She has been a human rights activist with a capital “A” and a defender of the people. The residents of Chechnya were victims of bombings, sweep-up operations, abductions and torture. Natasha tried to help them all. She required the authorities to do the impossible – to halt lawlessness. Sometimes she succeeded – confidence in her righteousness and in the power of law gave her strength. This work made Natasha famous throughout Chechnya. People reached out to her hoping for protection, hoping at least that lawlessness would not remain obscure.

Natasha was threatened more than once by officials of all ranks, but she could never have seen herself working outside her motherland, Chechnya.

Statement by Oleg Orlov, Chairman of the Memorial HRC Board:

I know, I am sure who is guilty of Natasha Estemirova’s murder. We all know this person. His name is Ramzan Kadyrov, the President of the Chechen Republic. Ramzan had already threatened Natalia, insulted her and considered her his personal enemy. We do not know if he gave the order himself or if his closest associates did it to please the chief. President Medvedev appears to find it acceptable to have a murderer as the leader of one of the regions of the Russian Federation.

After Natasha had allowed herself to speak disapprovingly of women being forced to wear headscarves in public, she had a conversation with Kadyrov. She said that Kadyrov had threatened her and had said, verbatim, ‘Yes, my arms are covered with blood up to my elbows and I am not ashamed of it. I have killed and will kill bad people. We are fighting against enemies of the Republic.’

We know that Natasha’s latest reports about new abductions, extrajudicial executions and a public killing in a Chechen village provoked indignation among the high authorities of Chechnya. The so-called Representative for Human Rights in the Chechen Republic, Nurdi Nukhazhiyev, spoke about this to the chief of our Grozny office. He stated that he did not want anything to happen and therefore he was going to berate human rights activists.

We took a risk that turned out to be unjustified. We are very guilty.

Let’s say it straight. State terror is being practiced in Russia. We know of murders within Chechnya and outside its territory. Those who attempt to speak the truth or criticise the authorities are being killed. Ramzan Kadyrov has made the work of human rights activists in Chechnya impossible. Those who killed Natasha Estemirova wanted to put an end to the truth flowing from Chechnya. Perhaps they have succeeded.


[1] Memorial HRC is also an applicant in the case concerning organisations which have been place on the ‘foreign agents’ registry.

[2] On 16 November 2015. the European Court communicated the case concerning Natalia Estemirova’s killing to the Russian Government for its observations.  The applicant, Ms Estemirova’s sister, claims violations of the right to life and the right to an effective remedy.