Fears grow over probe on Russian activist's murder

13th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

Russian activists Thursday mark one year since the assassination in the Caucasus of rights campaigner Natalya Estemirova, doubting the sincerity of the authorities' desire to find her true killers.

Estemirova's former colleagues say investigators have named only one suspect in her murder, an Islamist militant who is already dead, and accused them of ignoring all other leads.

The award-winning campaigner for Russian rights group Memorial was murdered with shots to the head and chest on July 15, 2009, hours after she was seen being bundled into a car outside her home in the Chechen capital Grozny.

"We had hope at the start of this probe... But now we are losing hope that this case will truly be solved," said Oleg Orlov, head of Memorial.

The 50-year-old's murder was the latest in a series of killings of rights defenders and critical reporters in Russia, most notably the 2006 shooting of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

Adding to tensions ahead of the anniversary, Memorial has found itself under attack from the strongman leader of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov who described the internationally respected group as "enemies of the people".

Her supporters say the evidence fingering Alkhazur Bashayev, an Islamist militant killed during a special operation by security forces in Chechnya last fall, shows every sign of being fabricated.

But if he is accused, the probe into Estemirova's murder will be swiftly closed without ever going to trial -- which activists charge is the investigation's main goal.

"We're afraid that the investigation has recently increasingly moved toward one outcome," said Orlov.

"They will name Natasha Estemirova's killers from among the ranks of militants -- moreover dead militants -- as if the case was closed."

Estemirova was one of the most referenced sources for journalists and rights groups in Chechnya and had won worldwide acclaim for uncovering rights abuses.

Activists said they had learned from leaks in the investigation that the Russian FSB security services had brought new evidence to the probe into her murder.

A piece of rubber was discovered at the murder scene that fit with the silencer of gun found in the trunk of a car matching the description of that in which Estemirova was abducted, said Svetlana Gannushkina, head of the Civil Assistance committee and one of Russia's best-known activists.

The gun was found hidden along with a fake identity card bearing Bashayev's picture, she said.

"I understood from my talks with them that the investigators themselves did not believe this all-too-convenient story," Gannushkina told reporters.

She and other activists accused the investigation of neglecting to pursue leads on others who had motives for wanting Estemirova silenced, including individuals working in Chechnya's security structures.

Days before her murder, Estemirova had publicized the summary execution of a suspected rebel in front of his village, in a case that stoked major interest on the Internet and was picked up by several NGOs specialising on the Caucasus.

"Not a single one of the cases Natasha worked on has been investigated... When there is a real thread to follow the investigation starts to skid and sabotage and falsify it," Orlov said.

Orlov has been accused of libel in a criminal investigation into his allegations last year that the Kremlin-backed Kadyrov was responsible for Estemirova's murder.

Kadyrov is a hugely controversial figure, praised by the Kremlin for restoring some stability to war-torn Chechnya but hated by rights activists, who accuse him of letting a personal militia carry out kidnappings and torture.

© 2010 AFP

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