Two years ago, as she was leaving home on a hot Wednesday morning in Grozny, several attackers forced Natalya Estemirova, the prominent journalist and human rights defender, into a car. A young witness--who later fled for fear of reprisal--recalled that Estemirova cried out she was being kidnapped and that a white Lada sedan then sped off. Estemirova's body was found a few hours later, ditched along a road near the village of Gazi-Yurt in neighboring Ingushetia.
Suspicion immediately fell on Chechnya's administration, and, specifically, the republic's president, Ramzan Kadyrov. He had made no secret of his hostility toward Estemirova and the organizations she worked with--the human rights group Memorial, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and the regional online news agency Kavkazsky Uzel. She had investigated human rights abuses, kidnappings, torture, and extrajudicial killings in Chechnya--crimes that often implicated local security and law enforcement officials, as well as the military men known as Kadyrovtsy for their devotion to the Kadyrov clan.
Kadyrov has repeatedly denied involvement in Estemirova's murder, even filing a defamation lawsuit after Memorial's head, Oleg Orlov, publicly blamed the Chechen leader for the murder. (A Moscow district court acquitted Orlov on June 14.) President Dmitry Medvedev condemned the murder back in July 2009 and pledged that the killers would be apprehended and punished. But two years later, the investigation is on the wrong track, Estemirova's colleagues said at a press conference at the Independent Press Center in Moscow last week.
An investigation carried out by Novaya Gazeta, Memorial, and the International Federation for Human Rights concludes that the official inquiry has erred by focusing its suspicion on Alkhazur Bashayev, a rebel leader whom Chechen authorities say was killed in a 2009 firefight. Bashayev was allegedly angered that Estemirova was looking into reports that separatists were recruiting young men from the village of Shalazhi. (Estemirova indeed traveled to Shalazhi in May 2009 to check out such reports.)
But Estemirova was working on a more sensitive story at the time of the murder, her colleagues told journalists last week. She was investigating the possible involvement of Chechen police officers in the public execution of local resident Rizvan Albekov. On July 7, 2009--a week before Estemirova's own killing--armed men wearing camouflage clothing shot Albekov in the center of Akhkinchu-Borzoi village, in the presence of local residents, Memorial reported at the time. Before killing him, the assailants asked Albekov if he was helping boyeviki (the rebels); without waiting for a response, they riddled him with bullets and warned the stunned group of witnesses that a similar fate awaited others who helped the rebels, Memorial said.
Estemirova was the first person to report on the case. The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, which is leading the Estemirova probe, initially considered the reporter's coverage of the Albekov execution to be a potential motive in her own killing, colleagues said. In their report, titled "Two Years After the Killing of Natalya Estemirova: Investigation on the Wrong Track," colleagues said that detectives traveled to Chechnya's Kurchaloevsky district, and lead investigator Igor Sobol sought information from Chechnya's prosecutor's office about Albekov's killing and local police abuses. But investigators inexplicably stopped pursuing the Kurchaloevsky lead in early 2010.
As currently focused, the official investigation is built on flawed evidence, the new report asserts. The 30-page document details questions about the car officials say was used to kidnap Estemirova; a falsified police identification card said to carry the photo of Bashayev; and a weapons cache allegedly found in the Bashayev home that included the murder weapon. How, the authors asked, did the car have no sign of struggle between Estemirova and her kidnappers? How was Basheyev able to falsify a police identity card? The report's authors say Bashayev was not sophisticated enough to do so.
But most questions arise from the investigation's handling of the forensic evidence collected from under Estemirova's fingernails--material that likely contained the DNA of her killers. The material, authors said, showed that Estemirova fended off at least three attackers, one of whom was a woman. Investigators ordered only one type of DNA testing, they said, which could not categorically confirm or disprove involvement by Bashayev. In the process of the testing, the report's authors said, the samples were virtually depleted, making further testing nearly impossible. It is still, possible, however, to compare the completed test results against other possible suspects--such as police officers in Kurchaloyevsky. So far, according to the new report's authors, such tests have not been carried out.
In a statement on Friday, the second anniversary of Estemirova's murder, the Investigative Committee said it had evidence as to the "irrefutable involvement" of Bashayev in the killing. "The motive for this crime," the statement reads, "the investigation considers Bashayev's revenge for Estemirova's publications about his recruitment of rebels and attack on a Moscow businessman, as well as [Bashayev's] attempt to discredit the government structures of the Chechen Republic." The Investigative Committee said it is seeking Bashayev on an international arrest warrant--reports of his death notwithstanding--and that revealing evidence would jeopardize the investigation. Apparently responding to the report by Estemirova's colleagues, the Investigative Committee said: "Some statements in the mass media about [Bashayev's] lack of involvement are not based on facts but are simply the subjective opinion of persons who do not possess the necessary competence, do not have information, and do not have access to all of the materials of the criminal case."
For their part, Estemirova's colleagues called on authorities to allow them such access. At the press conference on Thursday, the Estemirova family lawyer Roman Karpinsky told journalists that he has filed a claim with the European Court of Human Rights, protesting the investigators' denial of access to relevant case material to his clients.
(Reporting from Moscow)