In Russia, an Advocate Is Killed, and an Accuser Tried
In a small courtroom in Moscow, friends of Natalya K. Estemirova crowded onto wooden benches, clasping photographs of her. It was 16 months after the murder of Ms. Estemirova, a renowned human rights advocate in the tumultuous region of Chechnya, and now the legal system was taking action.
A defendant was on trial, and his interrogators were demanding answers about special operations and assassination plots.
But the defendant was not Ms. Estemirova’s suspected killer. It was her colleague Oleg P. Orlov, chairman of Memorial, one of Russia’s foremost human rights organizations.
The authorities had charged Mr. Orlov with defamation because he had publicly pointed the finger at the man he believed was responsible for the murder: the Kremlin-installed leader of Chechnya. If convicted, Mr. Orlov could face as many as three years in prison.
The shooting of Ms. Estemirova, 51, in July 2009 has so far produced only an incomplete investigation, and no charges have been filed against anyone involved. Her case has instead turned into an example of what often happens in Russia when high-ranking officials fall under scrutiny. Retaliation follows, and the accuser becomes the accused.
Mr. Orlov, who first raised his voice against official wrongdoing as an anti-Soviet pamphleteer in the 1980s, has found himself under an unrelenting legal siege from the [puppet] Chechen leader, Ramzan A. Kadyrov.
Kadyrov’s attempt to silence Mr. Orlov reflects an increasingly common tactic in Russia. The authorities do not summarily imprison their critics as dissidents, as in Communist times. They instead often invoke an array of civil and criminal charges, including defamation, to exact financial penalties or prison sentences. They haul their opponents before judges who are wary of handing down decisions against those in power.
Kadyrov, who denies any connection to Ms. Estemirova’s killing, rules unchallenged in Chechnya. Still, he has portrayed Memorial as a treacherous and violent organization. In seeking charges against Mr. Orlov in Moscow, 1,000 miles from Chechnya, he effectively quashed the idea that the Russian capital offers sanctuary for those pursuing human rights issues in remote regions. No one from the Kremlin has come to Mr. Orlov’s defense.
Kadyrov’s lawyer, who under the law can work with the prosecution during the proceedings, has even used the trial to promote his own black-is-white theory of Ms. Estemirova’s death. “Maybe Memorial itself ordered the killing” to discredit Kadyrov, said the lawyer, Andrei A. Krasnenkov.
Mr. Orlov has been allowed to remain free while the trial continues, and has not recanted his criticism of Kadyrov, who has been assailed by human rights groups for his brutal methods in quelling the Islamic insurgency in Chechnya.
Mr. Orlov said that Kadyrov, if not directly responsible for ordering Ms. Estemirova’s murder, was at a minimum responsible for demonizing her and for indicating to his associates that he would not mind if she were no longer around. Mr. Orlov said Kadyrov had to be held accountable for the climate of bloodshed and fear in Chechnya.
With his shaggy mop of gray hair and sport coats — no tie, even in court — Mr. Orlov, 57, resembles an unassuming history professor. But during his tenure, Memorial has expanded well beyond its historical mission of remembering victims of Communist persecution. It has delved into some of the most provocative issues in Russia, from Chechnya to the rights of the political opposition.
“Of course, I don’t want to go to prison and lose my freedom,” Mr. Orlov said the other day at his office, which has a large bulletin board that is a shrine of sorts to Ms. Estemirova, who was also known as Natasha.
“But those words that I said were only a minimal debt owed to the murdered Natasha Estemirova,” he said. “This was the least that I could do for the memory of my deceased comrade and friend. I had to do it. I told the truth.”
Getting at the Truth
Natalya Estemirova was a former history teacher with a knack for putting victims at ease and a willingness to venture into conflict zones to get at the truth. As a senior researcher for Memorial in Chechnya, she had repeatedly documented atrocities committed by the security forces. Her findings had led to successful rulings against the government at the European Court of Human Rights — the only place many Russians feel they can obtain justice.
She did not support Islamic extremists in Chechnya, and did not shy from detailing their misdeeds. But she wanted the authorities to suppress the insurgency lawfully.
Kadyrov is a former militant who switched sides and became a Kremlin ally. He rose to power after his father, the [puppet] Chechen president, was assassinated in 2004. Three years later, Vladimir V. Putin, then Russia’s president, named Kadyrov to lead Chechnya. He was only 30 years old. A bearded and muscular amateur boxer, he likes to brandish weapons before the cameras and show off a personal zoo, stocked with a tiger, ostriches and other exotica. The Kremlin has credited him with stabilizing and rebuilding Chechnya.
Kadyrov has often said that Ms. Estemirova and Memorial manufactured their conclusions in order to curry favor with Western donors and weaken Russia.
In 2008, witnesses at the current Orlov trial testified, Kadyrov tried to sideline Ms. Estemirova by appointing her to a government human rights panel. He apparently reasoned that if she had an official role, she would not go public with her criticism.
Soon after, Ms. Estemirova gave an interview with a national television network in which she disparaged rules in Chechnya requiring women to wear Islamic head scarves.
“I generally don’t like it when someone imposes something on me, dictates something to me or orders me around — how to live, how to dress,” Ms. Estemirova said.
Kadyrov, a major proponent of the rules, was infuriated, and at a meeting, fired her from the rights board.
“Natasha said he spoke to her very aggressively, in a hostile tone, and periodically broke into screaming,” a colleague, Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya, told the court this month.
“He threatened Natasha, and expressed his extreme displeasure with Natasha’s work in particular,” Ms. Sokiryanskaya said. “He said his arms were covered in blood up to his elbows. He said he had killed people, and he was not ashamed of it because he fought against the enemies of Chechnya.”
Ms. Sokiryanskaya then recounted the most chilling part. Kadyrov asked Ms. Estemirova whether she had a daughter, though he knew that she did. He posed another question: Did she ever fear for her daughter’s safety?
Ms. Estemirova left the meeting and fled Russia with her teenage daughter. It was the second time that she had gone into exile after being berated by Kadyrov, her friends said. But after a few months, she returned, still criticizing Kadyrov and his security forces.
In July 2009, Ms. Estemirova was compiling information about how the security services were setting fire to the homes of relatives of suspected militants. A senior [puppet] Chechen official complained to a colleague of hers that she was smearing Chechnya’s reputation.
The official made reference to Anna Politkovskaya, the crusading opposition journalist who was killed in 2006 and was Ms. Estemirova’s friend. He said that if Ms. Politkovskaya had trod more cautiously, she would still be alive.
Ms. Estemirova’s superiors in Moscow grew alarmed and began planning to evacuate her again. But it was too late.
As she left her apartment in Grozny, the Chechen capital, on July 15, she was shoved into a car by unidentified men, who drove her to the neighboring region of Ingushetia.
She was found shot to death on the side of a road. None of her valuables or documents were stolen. The authorities were not able to explain how her assailants transported her through several police checkpoints without being detected.
First Grief, Then Anger
When the news of Ms. Estemirova’s murder reached Moscow, Mr. Orlov was consumed with grief and regret: Why hadn’t Memorial gotten her out sooner? Then he became angry.
“People ask me, who is guilty of this murder?” Mr. Orlov thundered at a news conference. “I know the name of this person. I know his title. His name is Ramzan Kadyrov. His title is [puppet] president of the Chechen Republic.”
In Chechnya, Kadyrov denied that he had anything to do with the killing, and promised to personally lead the search for the killers. Even so, he publicly belittled Ms. Estemirova and Memorial.
“Why would Kadyrov kill a woman whom no one cared about?” Kadyrov said in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in August 2009. “She never had any honor, dignity or a conscience. Never.”
On Chechen television, he later referred to Memorial with the kind of language that the Soviet Union used when persecuting dissidents. “They are not my opponents — they are enemies of the people, enemies of the law, enemies of the state,” Kadyrov said.
Kadyrov would not be interviewed for this article. His aides said he had made his views clear in court papers.
Kadyrov first brought a civil lawsuit against Mr. Orlov, and less than three months after the murder, a judge ruled in Kadyrov’s favor. Memorial and Mr. Orlov were ordered to publish an official retraction of the charges against Kadyrov on Memorial’s Web site, and pay roughly $2,300 in damages.
At Kadyrov’s behest, prosecutors then indicted Mr. Orlov on criminal defamation charges.
At the trial this fall, Kadyrov’s lawyer, Mr. Krasnenkov, has suggested that Memorial menaced Kadyrov, not the other way around. Mr. Krasnenkov forcefully questioned a colleague of Ms. Estemirova, Aleksandr V. Cherkasov.
Mr. Krasnenkov: “Are you aware of physical threats toward Ramzan Kadyrov — or threats to kill him — heard from the very lips of one of the staff members of Memorial?”
Mr. Cherkasov: “I know nothing about that.”
Mr. Krasnenkov: “Can you guarantee that Memorial does not have a special group that exerts psychological and physical pressure on people whom Memorial is displeased with? Yes or no!”
Mr. Cherkasov: “Of course, I can. It’s strange for me to hear such a thing.”
Outside court, Mr. Krasnenkov said in an interview that a guilty verdict should compel the F.S.B., the main successor to the K.G.B., to close down Memorial. He said he hoped that Kadyrov’s stance against Memorial would encourage other Russian politicians to not only file civil lawsuits over unjust criticism, but also seek criminal charges.
“They should do this for the sake of preserving the reputation of the state,” Mr. Krasnenkov said.
Kadyrov has not yet testified in the case, but he may do so in January. The judge is expected to hand down a verdict soon after.
In the meantime, the inquiry into Ms. Estemirova’s murder continues, including into who ordered it.
Law enforcement authorities now maintain that the actual killer was an Islamic extremist who was shot to death by the police in autumn 2009. They say they located the weapon used to kill Ms. Estemirova next to an identification document with the extremist’s picture on it.
Mr. Orlov described that determination as a farcical attempt to pin her murder on a dead man — an insurgent, no less.
Mr. Orlov made a formal request to the authorities: If they have ruled out involvement by government officials in Ms. Estemirova’s death, then they should release the case file showing that they examined that theory. The request was denied.
By Clifford J. Levy
27.12.2010 – The New York Times