‘Open Season’ on Activists
From time to time Natalya Estemirova, a tireless, seemingly fearless defender of the human rights of fellow Chechens, held public vigils in her republic, defiantly holding up the photos of people who had vanished.
She used the kind of dogged persistence that resulted in a measure of tangible justice for people caught in the crossfire of war and its brutal aftermath. She got a roof over the head for those who had been bombed out of their homes; she supported terrified villagers as they brought their cases to the European Court of Human Rights.
Ms. Estemirova was working on a sensitive case for the Russian human rights group Memorial when she was kidnapped in July outside her home in Grozny. Her body was found, shot in the chest and the head, in a wooded area in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia.
Then, it was her picture, larger than life, that demonstrators held up on posters.
“It is not easy to be an activist in the Memorial group,” Oleg Orlov, the organization’s chairman, said through a Russian translator in a telephone interview with the National Post.
In December, he and two Memorial executives will accept the European Union’s highest human rights award in Strasbourg, a recognition the awards committee says is meant to end the circle of fear and violence permeating the work of human rights activists in Russia and its republics.
“It seems to be open season on anyone trying to highlight the appalling human rights abuses in Chechnya,” said Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch, after Ms. Estemirova’s murder. She was the second of five activists and one journalist killed this year in the Russian Federation.
Last week, Sergei Magnitsky, a 37-year-old Russian tax lawyer who represented Hermitage Capital, an investment firm that had alleged widespread government corruption, died in a Moscow detention centre.
He had allegedly been denied treatment for more than a year after his arrest on charges of helping an investment firm evade taxes — an accusation the CEO says is “trumped up.”
Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian President, ordered an investigation into Mr. Magnitsky’s death, something he also did when Ms. Estemirova was killed.
Mr. Medvedev has been criticized for not doing enough to weed out corruption, even though he has taken a stand against it publicly and repeatedly pledged to support non-governmental organizations. He has also talked about relaxing laws that make it difficult for NGOs to work, calling the existing regulation a “burden”.
Many activists remain skeptical and blame the state for fostering a climate of fear.
“In some regions of the country, like North Caucasus, there is a possibility of getting killed or seriously injured,” Mr. Orlov said.
“In other regions, you face a misunderstanding with the local government forces who might then prevent or slow down your work.” Officials try to thwart investigations by sending revenue agency or health inspectors to branches; they accuse the group of supporting the interests of different Western countries, he said.
This year, Mr. Orlov was fined and ordered to retract public statements following a defamation lawsuit brought against him by Ramzan Kadirov, Chechnya’s strongman. He had accused Kadirov of being responsible for Ms. Estemirova’s murder.
The Memorial head knows violence first-hand: in 2007 he was abducted with three journalists; they were beaten and threatened with execution.
“The definition of war can be very vague,” he said. “Based on international standards there is no war, but the violence is still in place and by some statistics is getting worse.”
Emma Gilligan, a professor at the University of Connecticut who has written a book on the conflict in Chechnya, said during the first war in the mid-1990s activists could move freely around the conflict zones, where they organized emergency lists for evacuation procedures. “They were able to get a lot of information out, and to affect both international and Russian public opinion about the legitimacy of the war,” she said.
In the second Russian-Chechen war (1999-2003), access was restricted to about 30% of the territory. According to her records, seven human rights defenders were murdered and another six disappeared, presumed killed, in 1999 -2005.
The Russian Chechen Friendship Society suffered the most, but it was the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who was relentless in her pursuit of exposing abuse, that sent shockwaves through the activism community.
Several people were arrested for her murder in 2007, but a key suspect was believed to be at large. Meanwhile, Ms. Estemirova’s case remains unsolved.
This is partly because no one knows who killed her or wanted her dead.
“One can’t determine, is it Kadirov’s forces who are afraid of what these people will expose? Is it the Russian security forces? Whether they are random individual people who are frightened that they may expose information about them, is unknown. One can speculate about these things but fundamentally we have no information.”
David Satter, a former Moscow correspondent and senior fellow with the Hudson Institute, which researches global security, says although it’s difficult to identify the killers, “what we know is that the general lawlessness, which the top authorities foster, was responsible.”
Mr. Orlov said the government is abducting people to deal with terrorism — he described it as a policy of fighting terrorism with state terrorism.
“The government found that it is much more easier and effective to abduct people and torture them to tell the information that is needed, instead of following the law and creating a case file,” he said.
“By following the measures that they are using right now it not only helps the government to receive information but also to scare and threaten the rest of the local citizens.”
He said that according to data collected by Memorial workers, more than 3,000 people disappeared in Chechnya and Russian republics in 2000-07. But since 2005, “major assults on the local population have eased.”
“These days people are singled out and picked up in the night after which they are either returned or sent to the local police units and are forced to confess to every charge that is suggested, no matter of their innocence,” Mr. Orlov said. People are returned with signs of abuse and torture.”
In the face of all this, “very brave and principled people” continue to fight for human rights, said Mr. Satter.
“I’m not surprised, but I’m alarmed for them. I feel that they don’t really have a choice,” said Ms. Gilligan. “And they also know that fundamentally, is it true that a society can recreate itself without dealing with its past? It probably is, but how well will it reconstruct itself, for how long?
Natalie Alcoba – National Post