The woman who knew too much

THE pattern is by now well-established: perceived foes of the ruthless young thug elevated by Vladimir Putin to the presidency of Chechnya all too frequently end up dead. And the unabashedly vengeful Ramzan Kadyrov’s reach extends far beyond his still volatile fiefdom.

Last September, Ruslan Yamadayev, a member of a well-known Chechen family that had fallen out with Kadyrov, was shot dead in his car at a traffic intersection in central Moscow. About six months later, his brother Sulim Yamadayev, who might have considered himself safe after having fled to Dubai, was murdered in the car park of his apartment block in the emirate. An investigation by the Dubai police suggested the hit was set up by Adam Delemkhanov, one of Kadyrov’s right-hand men.

Then there was the case of Umar Israilov, a former bodyguard of Kadyrov who received asylum in Austria – and who told the Austrian authorities that he had seen Kadyrov personally take part in torture sessions, and that the latter maintained a list of 300 enemies who in his opinion needed to be eliminated. Last January, Israilov met a sticky end outside his Vienna apartment.

It is widely suspected, though, that Kadyrov does not restrict himself to former associates who switch their loyalty. When the indefatigable Russian journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya, who had assiduously chronicled abuses committed in Chechnya, was assassinated outside her Moscow apartment block in October 2006, her friends were quick to point an accusatory finger towards the Grozny potentate. "I don’t kill women," responded Kadyrov. (Curiously enough, a similar, arguably misogynist, sentiment was reportedly voiced by Baitullah Mehsud after he was accused of masterminding the murder of Benazir Bhutto.)

In 2007, the first Anna Politkovskaya prize was awarded to Natalia Khussainova Estemirova, a woman of mixed Chechen and Russian parentage who had decided to devote her life to documenting the extra-judicial killings, disappearances and torture that became a part of Russia’s "war against terror". She regularly visited affected families in far-flung villages and meticulously noted down the depredations to which they had been subjected. When not travelling, she sat day after day in her office in Grozny and recorded the testimony of grim-faced women who queued up to relate their gruesome tales of woe.

Estemirova regularly fired off well-documented missives to state prosecutors, even though she knew they were unlikely to lead anywhere. She also contributed articles to Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper with which her friend Politkovskaya had been associated. The thrice-weekly paper, part-owned by Mikhail Gorbachev and Alexander Lebedev, is one of the only truly independent journals in Russia, and its staff have grown accustomed to the idea that their lives are constantly at risk.

Last February, the newspaper’s lawyer Stanislav Markelov – who had worked with Estemirova in representing victims of the repression in Chechnya – was shot dead not far from the Kremlin. Killed alongside him was 25-year-old Novaya Gazeta intern Anastasia Baburova, who had been investigating the growth of neo-Nazism in Russia. "Natasha flew in for [Markelov's] funeral," recalls Tanya Lokshina, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Moscow office, referring to her friend Estemirova. "She and I stayed up all night, talking about Markelov and Politkovskaya and wondering who would be next."

Their question was answered on July 15, when four armed men grabbed Estemirova while she was on her way to work in Grozny. A few hours later, her bullet-ridden corpse was found near a highway in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia. Passersby in Grozny had heard her scream "I am being kidnapped". The vehicle must have crossed at least three checkpoints, but evidently went unchallenged.

Kadyrov vowed shortly thereafter to personally lead an investigation into "the monstrous crime". Funnily enough, the promise – or, more accurately, threat – did little to placate Estemirova’s friends and colleagues.

In February last year, possibly in an attempt to blunt her criticism, Kadyrov had picked Estemirova as the chairwoman of an advisory committee on human rights – an unpaid position. He dismissed her a month later, after she publicly criticized a new law that required women in Chechnya to wear headscarves. She was summoned to a meeting at which, according to Oleg Orlov – the head of Memorial, the organization that employed Estemirova – Kadyrov told her: "Yes, my hands are up to the elbows in blood. And I am not ashamed of that. I will kill and kill bad people." George W. Bush himself couldn’t have put it much better.

Estemirova sensibly interpreted Kadyrov’s questions about her relatives – and in particular her teenage daughter – as a threat and moved out of Grozny, spending several peaceful months in the altogether more benign shadows of Oxford’s dreaming spires. But she felt obliged to return to her task. With dire consequences.

There is one notable difference between her assassination and that of Politkovskaya: the latter’s fate was greeted by the then Russian president, Putin, with silence, followed by denigration of her work. Dmitry Medvedev, in contrast, immediately denounced Estemirova’s killing as an abomination. He had also responded to the murder of Markelov and Baburova by inviting Gorbachev and Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitry Muratov to the Kremlin for a condolence meeting in which he reportedly emphasized the value of dissenting voices in the media.

However, he postponed the initiative to 10 days after the double murder, until Prime Minister Putin was out of the country. And he tempered his criticism of Estemirova’s elimination by remarking that the charges against Kadyrov were "primitive an unacceptable".

Medvedev is obviously better than Putin at articulating relatively unobjectionable sentiments, but it is far from clear whether his purported thoughts reflect a meaningful change in the neo-Stalinism that has of late characterized the state’s reaction to dissidents – a response that is epitomized by, but by no means restricted to, Chechnya – as witnessed by the murder of Karelian human rights activist Andrei Kulagin.

Meanwhile, in Estemirova’s case, it’s obvious that another source of light and warmth in the bleak post-Soviet Russian landscape has arbitrarily been snuffed out.

The BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes recalls meeting Lebedev in the wake of Markelov and Baburova’s murder. He asked him who was responsible for the killings. "In answer," Wingfield-Hayes writes, "he described Russia as two countries, one within the other. In one live tens of millions of ordinary Russians, in the other live a tiny elite of officials, politicians and businessmen who together have amassed vast fortunes running in the hundreds of billions. They own private jets, houses across Europe, and yachts ancored on the french Riviera.. ‘They will,’ he told me, ‘do anything to defend their weath and power,’ "

To some that sounds like an echo of the communist nomenklatura. Others may well perceive it as a reasonably accurate reflection of pre-revolutionary Russia.

Back in the bad old days of Leonid Brezhnev, a common Soviet joke involved the Soviet leader showing off his acquisitions to his rustic mother: his Western limousines, his excusive Omega, his helicopter, his dacha. The old lady is singularly unimpressed. Her son queries her reluctance to appreciate his wealth. "that’s all very weel, my son," she responds. "But what will you do if the Bolsheviks come back?"

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