Remembering Natalia Estemirova

Published: 11 Mar 2021

Natalia Estemirova in London, 4 October 2007 (PHOTO: Reuters/Dylan Martinez)

Natalia Estemirova was one of the most outstanding human rights defenders to have worked in Chechnya. She was kidnapped and murdered in 2009. Natalia would now be 63 years old. To this day, those responsible for her murder have neither been found nor prosecuted.

Natalia Estemirova and EHRAC Director Philip Leach, London, 2008

EHRAC and Memorial Human Rights Centre are representing Natalia’s sister, Svetlana, in a case that is pending judgment before the European Court of Human Rights, in which she alleges that Natalia was killed by Russian state agents as a result of her role documenting cases of human rights violations in Chechnya.

Memorial, where Natalia worked, recounts her story here. This is an abridged and translated version of a media project, first published by Memorial in 2018.

‘We are very pleased to publish this article commemorating Natalia’s life and work. Natalia’s unimaginably courageous work was at the root of so many of the cases taken by Memorial and EHRAC to the European Court concerning gross human rights abuses committed by security forces in Chechnya. A year before she was murdered, I took part in a Law Society panel event in London with Natalia, and Victoria Webb from Amnesty International, when Natalia spoke movingly about her experience in preparing such cases on the ground and the importance of European Court judgments for the Chechen people. Ten years after her own case was lodged, we continue to await the judgment of the European Court about her abduction and murder, as we strive for justice and accountability for her and her family.’
EHRAC Director Philip Leach

Who was Natalia Estemirova?

Natalia Estemirova was born on 28 February 1958 into a mixed Russian and Chechen family. She graduated from the History Faculty at Grozny University and later worked as a teacher. In Spring 1994, Natalia gave birth to a daughter, Lana.

After the First Chechen War, Natalia worked as a television journalist and engaged in community work to help people who had been interned in so-called ‘filtration camps’.

In September 1999, Natalia started working with Memorial Human Rights Centre and became its leading employee in the region. She forged close relationships with the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the human rights defender Stanislav Markelov, and their respective colleagues. The majority of articles on Chechnya from that time resulted from Natalia’s work. After the murder of Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, Natalia actively published in Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

Information about kidnappings and disappearances, torture and murders came through Natalia. It was not just about monitoring. In every instance, she tried to help people, by applying to the authorities and bringing crimes out into the open.

Natalia Estemirova received many international awards, including the Right to Life Award of the Swedish Parliament (2004), the Robert Schuman Medal (European Parliament, 2005), the Anna Politkovskaya Prize (2007) instituted by Reach All Women in War, and the Human Rights Watch Defender Award (2007).

Natalia lived as a ‘free person in an unfree country’—but cooperated with the authorities where possible. She was a member of the Prison Inspection Commission and was at the head of the Grozny Social Council for one month (but was ‘dismissed’ from this position by the Head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov).

Natalia was aware of the dangers she faced. She twice left Russia for several months, but subsequently returned to Chechnya.

On the morning of 15 July 2009, Natalia Estemirova was kidnapped near her home. Her body was found on the same day, at around 3pm, in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia, in the vicinity of a village called Gazi-Yurt. Natalia was killed by gunshots to the head and chest. She was later buried in Chechnya.

What did Natalia Estemirova work on?

Mopping-up operation in Novy Aldy

The world found out about what happened at Novy Aldy by chance.

‘A military police officer filmed the story of a nurse, Aset Chadayeva, who had helped victims during the mopping-up operation, and then this film somehow ended up with foreign journalists, and they showed it to her’, Natalia Estemirova told Kommersant, the Russian daily newspaper. Everyone who assisted in this work in Chechnya in 2000 – those who filmed it, those who passed it on – had to hide their identities. It was dangerous to speak out.

From the 31 January to 1 February 2000, Chechen militants secretly left the capital, Grozny, to the west and then to the south, to the mountains. Only then did Russian federal forces occupy the city. Moving from east to west, they ‘cleansed’ Grozny.

During the course of a ‘mopping-up operation’ on 5 February, sub-divisions of the federal forces inflicted reprisals on the inhabitants of Novy Aldy, a suburb of the city. This was one of the bloodiest episodes of the Second Chechen War.

Dozens of civilians were killed. The elderly, disabled, women, and children were among them. Memorial obtained documented confirmation of the murder of 56 people. Eyewitnesses recounted the brutality of the federal forces. People were beaten and robbed. Houses were set alight. Women had their jewellery stolen and were raped.

A still from the film ‘Aldy’, produced by Yelena Vilenskaya, Nikolay Rybakov, and Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya

Thanks in large part to Natalia Estemirova, the world was able to see images of Novy Aldy in ruins and hear the stories of eyewitnesses.

‘When I arrived in Aldy on 20 March 2000, there was not a single undamaged house’, Natalia later said. ‘Everything was destroyed. I remember how my colleagues and I hid when an armoured personnel carrier or a military truck appeared at the other end of the street, and how the people who wanted the world to know about their tragedy helped us.’

Ten years later, a 32-minute film was made—Aldy. It was produced by Yelena Vilenskaya, Nikolay Rybakov, and Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya, who used material gathered by Natalia in the film, as well as video recordings made by the villagers in the days following the tragedy. The film has been shown on the anniversary of the massacre every year since 2010.

To date, those responsible for the mass murders in Novy Aldy have neither been identified nor prosecuted. The investigation into this affair has been repeatedly terminated and then re-opened. The European Court of Human Rights has found Russia responsible for the deaths of innocent civilians and for failing to investigate the crime. 

Death of a mother and her five children in the bombardment of Rigakhoy

On 8 April 2004, a Russian military aircraft attacked the Chechen mountain village of Rigakhoy. When the bombing began, local resident Maidat Tsintsayeva took shelter in her house and gathered her five infant children around her. A bomb fell on the house, completely destroying it. The whole family perished under the rubble. Splinters of the same bomb killed sheep and a horse that were grazing nearby. Maidat’s husband, Imar-Ali Damayev, who was at the cemetery outside the village, and their eldest son, seven-year-old Umar, who was at school, survived.

The Russian airforce initially denied any activity in the district on that day. Several days later, employees of the military prosecutor’s office flew to the village by helicopter. They confirmed that there had been a bombing but said that the planes had targeted militants and not the village. Having inspected the ruins, the military prosecutor decided that there were no grounds to open a criminal case, alleging that the house had been destroyed because of an explosion of either a gas cylinder or an explosive device kept by Imar-Ali himself at home.

The ruins of Rigakhoy

On the same day, Natalia Estemirova went to Rigakhoy. She photographed the aftermath of the bombing, the ruins of the house, and other debris. She also photographed and filmed the bodies of Maidat Tsintsayeva and her children.

At the time, Memorial HRC wrote: ‘For the past ten years, representatives of the Russian power structures have repeatedly tried to deny their involvement in the bombing and shelling of settlements in Chechnya, asserting that ‘they are blowing themselves up’. In this case, the circumstances completely contradict such ‘theories’. We hope that the tragedy in Rigakhoy will be carefully investigated and those responsible will be punished.’

In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights found Russia responsible for the death of the family and for the failure of the Russian authorities to properly investigate the circumstances surrounding their deaths.

Memorial has reported on many instances of indiscriminate attacks on settlements and refugee columns. The reports for Autumn 1999 were collated in a compendium called Pinpoint Strikes. One of the reports is about a missile attack on Grozny city centre on 21 October 1999, which Natalia Estemirova miraculously survived. She subsequently testified about this attack and tried to get the authorities to open a criminal case into it.

The European Court of Human Rights has handed down judgments in several other cases, including cases which relate to an attack on a refugee column on 29 October 1999 and the shelling of the village of Katyr-Yurt on 4-5 February 2000. In Russia, all the cases were closed prematurely.

The Kadet Case

On 2 January 2001, before the eyes of several witnesses, law enforcement personnel seized 26-year-old Zelimkhan Murdalov on a Grozny street and dragged him into a nearby police building. His father, Astemir Murdalov, quickly began a search, but it was fruitless. The authorities denied that Zelimkhan had been detained. It was subsequently ascertained that he was being brutally tortured at that time and that he was then taken away to an unknown location. Zelimkhan disappeared.

As the investigation would later establish, an officer with the codename ‘Kadet’ (real name: Sergey Lapin) questioned Zelimkhan for several hours in his office together with two colleagues. They beat his arms and legs with a rubber truncheon and unsuccessfully tried to force him to become an informer.

Zelimkhan‘s cellmates later told journalist Anna Politkovskaya that he had a broken rib cage, crushed sexual organs, a broken arm, and serious head injuries. He had begun to convulse. An attending doctor had tried to help him. He stayed with Zelimkhan, who was in the throes of death, until midnight. Zelimkhan’s cellmates read prayers over him.

The next morning, Kadet and his accomplices took Zelimkhan away from the temporary detention facility. No one ever saw him again. In the facility logbook, it was recorded that he was released on the morning of 3 January. Next to the entry is a forgery of Zelimkhan’s signature.

On 3 January, Astemir Murdalov forced his way into the reception of the deputy head of the Temporary Department of the Interior. He was accompanied by public prosecutors and local military commandants—but it was futile. They did not find Zelimkhan, but did, however, find the bodies of several other ‘disappeared persons’.

Anna Politkovskaya (PHOTO: Amnesty Finland)

On 7 January, a criminal case was opened into the kidnapping. This case, like thousands of other cases, would have been suspended if Natalia Estemirova had not helped Zelimkhan’s relatives in the initial days following his disappearance. She spoke with the investigators and searched for witnesses. The journalist Anna Politkovskaya also found out about the case from Natalia.

After articles were published in Novaya Gazeta, Kadet threatened Politkovskaya, and so she had to be granted state protection. At this stage, the lawyer Stanislav Markelov got involved in the case, and he later represented the interests of Zemlikhan’s parents in court. Together with Estemirova, Politkovskaya and Markelov succeeded in bringing the case to court.

On 29 March 2005, Kadet received 11 years in a maximum-security prison for abuse of rank and forgery. Lapin’s defence counsel appealed the sentence. But a court upheld the verdict on 27 November 2007, by which time Anna Politkovskaya had already been murdered. Russia’s Supreme Court confirmed the decision in 2011.

Zelimkhan Murdalov’s body has never been found.

What happened to Natalia Estemirova? 

From 2007, it seemed like the human rights situation in Chechnya was improving. The number of kidnapped persons fell sharply, and the Chechen leadership had added human rights rhetoric to its armoury. Memorial has always strived for dialogue with the authorities.

In early 2008, the Chechen head, Ramzan Kadyrov, proposed a meeting with Memorial. As a result of this meeting, Natalia Estemirova was appointed joint chair of the Grozny Social Council for the Facilitation of the Observance of Human Rights and Freedoms. Estemirova became involved in the everyday work of solving the social problems of city inhabitants. These were problems of life, and not death—not disappearances and not murders. However, the relatives of unlawfully detained persons continued to contact her, and Natalia managed to get some of them released. Shortly after, it turned out that the authorities were only tolerating the work of human rights defenders if it did not contradict their policies. Estemirova only managed to conduct one meeting of the Social Council, on 28 March.

On 31 March, the Mayor of Grozny summoned Estemirova for a meeting. Mid-way through the meeting, Ramzan Kadyrov walked into the office. He rained abuse on Natalia over a TV report in which she had discussed the introduction of the mandatory wearing of headscarves by women in Chechnya. She was always against state involvement in private life. Kadyrov was also fed up with Memorial, which was accused of disseminating unconfirmed information and slandering the Chechen leadership. He removed Estemirova from the role of joint chair of the Social Council and advised her not to visit ministries and organisations under his jurisdiction.

After this meeting, Natalia left Russia again. The next time she learned that Kadyrov was highly dissatisfied with her work was at the beginning of July 2009.

Natalia’s last days

A memorial to Natalia Estemirova

In Memorial’s opinion, Natalia was murdered because of her professional activities – investigating public executions, kidnappings, and other gross human rights violations.

On 9 July 2009, Natalia Estemirova spoke to the media about a public execution that had occurred days earlier in Chechnya. Caucasian Knot also published material containing descriptions of recent instances of enforced disappearances and public executions. Natalia also mentioned the cases of Zelimkhan Khadzhiyev and Apti Zaynalov, who were kidnapped at the end of June 2009.

On 10 July, the head of the Memorial Grozny office, Shakhman Akbulatov, was summoned to the permanent Chechen Human Rights Ombudsman. He later stated: Ramzan Kadyrov is troubled by Memorial’s reports about human rights violations in the Republic: ‘[The ombudsman] … underlined…, [that] matters can be better resolved here [in Chechnya]. The ombudsman thought that one should not go looking for trouble, these are unsettling times: he was afraid that something might happen. He mentioned Anna Politkovskaya, who, if she had shown caution and flexibility, would still have been alive and working in benefit of the cause.’

Despite this warning, Natalia Estemirova continued working and giving information to the media. On 13 July, Caucasian Knot again published material about the persecution of the relatives of alleged militants, based on Estemirova’s information.

On 15 July 2009, Natalia Estemirova had planned a meeting out of the office. She left home early in the morning but did not arrive at her destination. Her telephone rang unanswered. Concerned colleagues went to her house in Grozny. There they found a witness who had seen Natalia being seized on the street, shoved into a car, and driven away. Memorial employees contacted the police and the public prosecutor’s office. A criminal case was opened into the kidnapping.

At around 16:30pm, Natalia’s body, bearing gunshot wounds, was found in Ingushetia, not far from the Kavkaz highway, in the vicinity of the village of Gazi-Yurt. Ingush investigators opened a case into murder and unlawful use of a firearm.

Investigation into the murder of Natalia Estemirova

The General Public Prosecutor of the Russian Federation took personal control of the investigation into Natalia’s death. In a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on 16 July, President Dmitriy Medvedev promised that her murderers would be found.

During the first six months, senior investigators examined four theories for Estemirova’s murder:

  • in relation to her professional activities;
  • for the purposes of discrediting the Chechen authorities;
  • due to personal hostile relations;
  • murdered by members of the law enforcement agencies of the Chechen republic in relation to her publicising instances of human rights violations.

The theory of the involvement of members of the law enforcement agencies came about on the basis of evidence given by Natalia’s colleagues when interrogated. From the very beginning they were certain that Estemirova was killed due to her human rights work.

‘Theory 1 and theory 4 are essentially the same,’ said Oleg Orlov. ‘Over the course of all the years she was working, Natalia paid great attention to gathering information about killings, kidnappings and torture, committed by members of the law enforcement agencies, including Chechen police officers.’

In the last week of her life, Estemirova was working on sensitive cases of kidnappings and murders in which, by all appearances, local law enforcement officials were involved. Estemirova and her colleagues at the Memorial Grozny office had also repeatedly received threats from representatives of the Chechen authorities.

Over the first six months after the murder, officials seriously investigated this theory and questioned many of Estemirova’s colleagues about it. However, in January 2010, the investigation came up with a new theory, which finally became the only accepted truth—that Natalia Estemirova was murdered by a militant armed group. The criminals had allegedly acted out of revenge. In May 2009, Estemirova had investigated a report that eight young people from the village of Shalazhi had gone ‘into the forest’ [translator’s note: meaning they had gone to join the militants].

According to the investigator, and official operational materials, the instruction that the investigation pay careful attention to this theory came to him from ‘above’. To the motive of revenge, the investigation added the criminals strived to discredit the leadership of the Chechen Republic, by having killed a famous human rights defender.

At the end of February 2010, the Investigative Committee announced that Estemirova’s murderer had been identified and was being sought. On 15 July 2011, two years after the murder, the Investigative Committee again stated that the theory of the kidnapping and murder of Estemirova by a well-known militant ‘had been confirmed objectively’ during the investigation. The purported murderer has never been found.

The lawyer representing the interests of Natalia’s sister was denied access to the majority of the investigation materials. He appealed this refusal, but to no avail.

Estemirova’s colleagues from Memorial, FIDH, and Novaya Gazeta analysed the case materials available to them and became convinced that the investigation was going in the wrong direction. They later published this conclusion in a report. Memorial believes that the investigation has put forward unconvincing and contradictory explanations for Estemirova’s murder.

Natalia’s case at the European Court of Human Rights

In 2015, the European Court of Human Rights communicated the case lodged by Natalia’s sister, Svetlana, to Russia. Svetlana is represented by Memorial and EHRAC.

The Government of Russia sent the Court 333 pages of case materials. However, in 2013, the case ran to 95 volumes (approximately 19 thousand pages based on the fact that one criminal case volume is usually 200 pages). All the documents transferred to Strasbourg supported the official theory of the militant’s guilt. Although the Russian authorities have stated that the theory that Estemirova was murdered due to her human rights activities was also examined, they did not submit any document confirming that the investigation considered this theory. The authorities also did not submit materials to the Court from the investigation conducted in the first six months after Estemirova’s murder.

The case is now awaiting judgment.