Ten years after her murder, we’re still seeking justice for Natalia Estemirova

Chechen human rights activist Natalia Estemirova was murdered on July 15, 2009. (AFP/Getty Images)
Chechen human rights activist Natalia Estemirova was murdered on July 15, 2009. (AFP/Getty Images)

By: Washington Post

This week we observe the 10th anniversary of the murder of Chechen human rights activist and freelance journalist

Natalia Estemirova, who worked in Chechnya for Memorial, Russia’s most important human rights organization.

She was a close friend and colleague of the slain Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and was Politkovskaya’s most frequent companion during travel and investigations in Chechnya. They uncovered a number of cases together, about which Politkovskaya wrote for “Novaya Gazeta” and Estemirova wrote for Memorial’s website and for local newspapers.

Originally trained as a historian, Estemirova taught history in Chechen schools after graduating from university. During the armed conflict between the Russian republics of Ingushetia and North Ossetia in 1992, Estemirova helped bring refugees to safety and helped free hostages. During the war in Chechnya, she collected testimonies from civilians tortured by the Russian forces in unofficial detention facilities, the so-called filtration camps. She investigated and exposed the torture, enforced disappearances and murders of civilians throughout the war in Chechnya.

In a ceremony held in 2007, the Women Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, on behalf of the international human rights organization RAW in WAR (Reach All Women in War), presented the first annual Anna Politkovskaya Award to Estemirova for her courage in seeking and telling the truth about the abuses against civilians in the war in Chechnya.Politkovskaya was shot dead in the entryway of her Moscow apartment building on Oct. 7, 2006. RAW in WAR established the award to honor Politkovskaya’s memory, and today presents it annually to female human rights defenders from war and conflict zones.

Estemirova was a brave and courageous woman who continued to document and speak out about the atrocities against civilians during the war in Chechnya despite repeated harassment and death threats. Eventually, she paid for it with her life, just like Politkovskaya, who was also killed to silence her voice. There is nothing more dangerous than telling the truth in today’s Russia.

On July 15, 2009, Estemirova was kidnapped in Grozny in front of her apartment block. Her body was found in neighboring Ingushetia a few hours later; she had been shot dead execution-style. The Chechen government faced huge criticism over its failure to properly investigate her death, and allegations of an official coverup of the facts surrounding her murder soon began to circulate.

Ten years on, no adequate investigation into Estemirova’s murder has taken place, nor has anyone been brought to justice for her murder. Today we repeat the call for the Russian government and the Chechen authorities to bring to justice those who murdered and those who ordered the murder of Natalia Estemirova.

In doing so, we remember and give thanks for her life of courage and truth-telling in the face of grave danger. We also call again on the Russian authorities to bring to justice the masterminds of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, which took place almost 13 years ago.

Today, as we remember Estemirova and all that she stood for, we are gravely concerned for the safety of yet another female human rights defender whose life is in danger. Since May, Gulalai Ismail, a courageous Pakistani women’s rights defender and 2017 Anna Politkovskaya Award winner, has been forced into hiding.

After speaking at a rally in Islamabad demanding justice for the rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl, Farishta Mohmand, Ismail received death threats. She was charged under anti-terrorism legislation and banned from leaving the country. Ismail’s family at home has been subject to repeated raids by military and police, during which her younger sister has been threatened and the family’s driver recently detained and apparently tortured in an attempt to make him reveal Ismail’s whereabouts.

We call on the Pakistani government and Pakistani military authorities to ensure that the charges against Gulalai Ismail are dropped and that urgent steps are taken to protect she and her family from harassment and threats to their lives. Many world leaders met in London last week at the Global Conference for Media Freedom, and pledged to end the persecution and harassment of journalists and ensure their safety.

At the same time, female journalists and human rights defenders working in war and conflict zones continue to live under threat. Yet the international community appears powerless to prevent the attacks and the killings, or to provide protection and safety to those facing grave danger.

Today, in honoring Natalia Estemirova, we call on the world’s leaders to demand justice for her and to do everything in their power to protect journalists and human rights defenders who, like Gulalai Ismail, work in areas of war and conflict, and who speak out on behalf of the victims. It is time for the international community to turn the pledges into action.

We owe it to the memory of Estemirova and Politkovskaya to protect the very few who still speak out on behalf of those to whom nobody wants to listen.

This letter was signed by the following:

Svetlana Alexievich is the 2015 Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature and the 2018 Anna Politkovskaya Award winner.

Mairead Maguire, a co-founder of the Peace People initiative in Northern Ireland, is a 1976 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.

Shirin Ebadi is an Iranian lawyer who founded the Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.

Jody Williams is a 1997 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded for her work on the banning of landmines.

Leymah Gbowee is a Liberian peace activist, social worker and women’s rights advocate. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

Binalakshmi Nepram is a writer and women’s rights activist from Manipur in India who founded the Women Gun Survivors Network. She won the 2018 Anna Politkovskaya Award.

Leila Alikarami, an Iranian lawyer and women’s rights advocate, is the author of the book “Women & Equality in Iran: Law, Society and Activism.“ She received the 2009 Anna Politkovskaya Award.

Kholoud Helmi is a Syrian journalist and women’s rights advocate who founded the leading Syrian opposition newspaper. She was a recipient of the 2015 Anna Politkovskaya Award.

Jineth Bedoya Lima is a Colombian journalist and peace campaigner who won the Anna Politkovskaya Award in 2016. She is the founder of “No es Hora de Callar“ (“Now Is Not the Time to Remain Silent”), a campaign to expose sexual violence against women and girls during the armed conflict in Colombia.

Valentina Cherevatenko is a veteran of human rights and peace-building initiatives in conflicts in the Caucasus and, more recently, Ukraine. She was the winner of the special 2016 Anna Politkovskaya Award, which marked the 10th anniversary of Politkovskaya’s murder.

Halima Bashir is a Sudanese doctor and author of “Tears of the Desert,“ a memoir about her experience of exposing sexual violence in the conflict in Darfur. She was the winner of the 2010 Anna Politkovskaya Award.

Vian Dakhil is a former Yazidi member of the Iraqi parliament who was the first to expose Islamic State atrocities against Yazidis (including sexual violence targeting women and girls). She received the 2014 Anna Politkovskaya Award.

Saba Ismail is a Pakistani women’s rights and peace activist and co-founder of the group Aware Girls, aimed at the empowerment of young women. Her sister, Gulalai Ismail, received the 2017 Anna Politkovskaya Award.