From the July 21, 2009 Forbes (Asia)
July 21, 2009
by David Satter
In the wake of the abduction and murder of Natalya Estemirova, a human rights defender in Chechnya, on July 15, a curtain of silence has fallen over Chechnya similar to what existed between the two Chechen wars when almost no reporter dared to venture there.
Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov will still organize tours for official visitors, of course. But the paralyzing fear that grips this corner of the Russian Federation will go unreported because no one will dare to reveal its source.
Estemirova, a single mother who lived in Grozny, was virtually the sole surviving source of information on torture, abductions and murders carried out by the security services under Kadyrov, a close ally of the Kremlin. Now, there is no one to take her place. In recognition of this, the Chechen branch of the Memorial Society, for which Estemirova worked, has closed.
In one of her last meetings with Kadyrov, he virtually foretold Estemirova's death. Estemirova had criticized the policy of compelling young girls in Chechnya to wear head scarves. In response, Kadyrov said, "I'm up to my elbows in blood. But I'm not ashamed of this. I murdered and will murder bad people. We're fighting with enemies of the republic."
At the time of her death, Estemirova was working on two issues that were extremely sensitive for the Chechen authorities, the burning of the homes of relatives of Chechen rebels, including very distant relatives, and the July 7 murder of a man in the village of Akhkinchu-Borzoi. The victim was kidnapped and then brought to the village and shot in front of the villagers who were told that a similar fate awaited anyone who helped the rebels.
Information about the killing in Akhkinchu-Borzoi was particularly damning because public executions in Chechnya during the republic's brief period of independence were used by Russia as an argument for why the Chechen regime should be replaced. At the same time, information about this type of crime rarely leaves the confines of the Chechen republic.
According to the Memorial Society, in the last 10 years there were between 3,000 and 5,000 abductions in Chechnya ending in summary executions. Only one case during this entire period went to trial and resulted in a conviction. This was the case of Sergei Lapin, a police official from Nizhnevartovsk, who was working on temporary assignment in Grozny and in 2001 illegally detained and interrogated Zelimkhana Murdalova, a resident of Grozny. Murdalova was brought to a lockup where the duty officer refused to accept him because of widespread signs of torture. Murdalova was then taken by Lapin in his official car in an unknown direction and is still classified as missing.
Lapin was eventually imprisoned due to the efforts of Anna Politkovskaya, who first reported the case, Stanislav Markelov, the lawyer for the victim's family, and Estemirova. All three have now been murdered. Politkovskaya was shot in the entryway of her apartment building in October 2006 and Markelov was murdered in broad daylight in a crowded street in the center of Moscow in January. Kadyrov is a suspect in the killings of both Politkovskaya and Markelov.
Besides the killings of human rights activists, Kadyrov is a suspect in the killing of Chechen refugees and oppositionists. In March, Sulim Yamadaev, a former Chechen commander and Kadyrov foe, was assassinated in Dubai. On January 14 Umar S. Israilov, a Chechen refugee and former Kadyrov bodyguard, was shot as he left a grocery store in Vienna. He had filed a detailed complaint with the European Court of Human Rights describing the use of abductions and torture by Kadyrov. His killing followed the killing in September 2008 in central Moscow of Ruslan Yamadaev, a former State Duma deputy and the brother of Sulim, and the killing of Movladi Baisarov, another Kadyrov opponent, by Chechen police in Moscow in November 2006.
In the past, both Kadyrov and the Russian leaders have reacted to the killings in which he is a suspect with either demonstrative indifference (no Russian official attended Markelov's funeral) or gruesome attempts at humor. Kadyrov, in the wake of the murder of Politkovskaya, said that he would never kill a woman.
In the case of the murder of Estemirova, however, the Chechen and Russian authorities' public relations techniques have improved. Both Russian president Medvedev and Kadyrov have condemned the murder and promised a thorough investigation. The fact remains, however, that one after another the opponents of Kadyrov are being murdered, the security services in Chechnya are totally controlled by him and the entire republic lives in fear.
Against this backdrop, Putin and Kadyrov are said to have a father-son relationship. This should give U.S. officials pause about placing too much faith in the moral qualities of the leaders in either Moscow or Grozny.
The extent to which Putin and Kadyrov work together is illustrated by billboards in Grozny which show Putin and Kadyrov clasping hands. Beneath them are the words, "They saved the people!"
David Satter, a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and a visting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), is the author of It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past (Yale). Age of Delirium, a documentary film about the fall of the Soviet Union based on his book of the same name, was recently released.
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