Russian rights activist found dead


A prominent human rights activist was found dead after being kidnapped in Russia's troubled republic of Chechnya today, provoking outrage from president Dmitry Medvedev and the international community.

Natalia Estemirova, a close friend of murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, worked for the human rights organisation Memorial in the Chechen capital Grozny and documented abuses by law enforcement agencies, colleagues said.

Her body was found in neighbouring Ingushetia.

"The news was reported to the president, he was outraged and gave all appropriate orders to the head of the investigations commission [Alexander] Bastrykin," Mr Medvedev's spokeswoman Natalya Timakova said.

The murder is the latest in a series of killings of journalists and human rights defenders in Russia which has drawn international condemnation and led to questions about Mr Medvedev's pledges to uphold the rule of law and build a freer society.

"The body had two wounds to the head, it was clear she had been murdered in the morning," Madina Khadziyeva, a spokeswoman at the Ingush interior ministry, told Reuters. She did not specify the nature of the injuries.

"It is evident that this deliberate murder could be related to Natalia Estemirova's human rights activities," said Medvedev's spokeswoman.

Ms Estemirova's body was found in woodland near the Ingush city of Nazran, the Ingush interior ministry spokeswoman added.

She was snatched as she left her house this morning, pushed into a white vehicle and driven away, colleagues at Memorial and Tanya Lokshina, Russia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Reuters.

Ms Estemirova was a single mother aged about 50, friends said, and leaves a teenage daughter.

Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, told a news conference in Strasbourg, France: "We of course condemn that brutal act and call for the authorities to try to establish who is responsible."

Well known to diplomats and human rights activists in Russia, Ms Estemirova was the inaugural recipient in 2007 of the Anna Politkovskaya Award, given by the charity Reach All Women in War (RAWinWAR).

Politkovskaya was gunned down by a lone assailant in her Moscow apartment building in 2006 as she returned home from a shopping trip. Nobody has yet been convicted of her murder.

A fluent Chechen speaker, Ms Estemirova acted as Politkovskaya's interpreter during her reporting trips to Chechnya, RAWinWAR said on its website. She also reported on the situation freelance for local media.

Alexander Cherkasov, who works at Memorial's Moscow head office, said her investigations into a recent public execution held in Chechnya attracted unwanted attention from authorities.

"It is known that this provoked - to put it gently - a nervous reaction from the Chechen authorities," he said.

Ms Estemirova focused on house burnings by security forces in mainly Muslim Chechnya, as well as abductions and unlawful killings, Memorial and HRW said.

A spokesman for Chechnya's leader, ex-rebel turned Kremlin loyalist Ramzan Kadyrov, declined comment on her death.

Chechnya and the nearby Muslim republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan are home to a simmering low-level Islamist insurgency.

Human rights groups have repeatedly accused the authorities of serious abuses during their war on the insurgents, including extra-judicial killings, torture and illegal punishment.

"During the first war in Chechnya, Natasha [Estemirova] collected numerous testimonies from civilians who were tortured by the Russian forces in unofficial detention facilities," RAWinWar said on its site.

HRW's Lokshina said she was killed for her work: "She was documenting some blatant human rights abuses... There is absolutely no doubt that is linked to her work, she was killed simply because of doing her job as a human rights worker."