Memorial: Russian rights group scarred by tragedy

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Russian rights group Memorial, whose main Caucasus activist Natalya Estemirova was murdered a year ago on July 15, has emerged as the leading campaigner against abuses in post-Soviet Russia.

But the group's crusading work exposing violations in the turbulent Caucasus regions has come at a cost and has often put it in conflict with the Kremlin-backed regional authorities.

Controversial Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov last week slammed the group as "enemies of the people, enemies of the law and enemies of the state."

Activists with Memorial say that such declarations amount to encouragement to the security forces in Chechnya to act against the group, posing a direct threat to its employees in the violence-torn region.

Estemirova, 50, was abducted outside her home in the Chechen capital of Grozny before her corpse was found hours later riddled with bullet holes in neighbouring Ingushetia on July 15, 2009.

Estemirova was one of Memorial's main employees in Chechnya, a region which fought two bloody wars with Moscow since the 1991 Soviet collapse, and had won worldwide acclaim for uncovering rights abuses.

Her murder was the latest in a series of killings of activists in Russia, most notably the 2006 shooting of Estemirova's friend and collaborator, investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

Memorial's chief Oleg Orlov was charged with libel earlier this month in a criminal investigation into his allegations last year that Kadyrov was responsible for Estemirova's murder.

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

Last year, the European Parliament awarded its Sakharov Prize -- named after the Soviet dissident who was Memorial's first chairman -- to leading activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva, Oleg Orlov and Sergei Kovalev "in the name of Memorial."

Alexeyeva and Kovalev are veterans of campaigns for human rights in Russia going back to Soviet times.

Memorial was founded in 1989 in the final years of Communist rule, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was pursuing his policy of relaxing tight controls known as Perestroika.

Initially its mission was to preserve the memory of those killed under Soviet repression, particularly the Stalin-era purges that are estimated to have killed millions.

But two separatist wars in Chechnya -- where Russian forces stood accused of major rights violations -- prompted the group to set up a department for human rights in present-day Russia.

"We can say with certainty and without false modesty that if there had been no Memorial, then the press, and through it the country, would have known far less about this war than today," Memorial says on its website.

There are branches of Memorial across Russia and the former Soviet Union which collect information about rights violations and form one of the few sources of such material.

© 2010 AFP

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