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“Last chance for justice” Russian government absolved of activist’s murder

A European court ruled the Kremlin isn’t responsible for Natalia Estemirova’s death in Chechnya. Her daughter warns of the message this sends on human rights in Russia

On July 15th 2009, Natalia Estemirova, a Russian human rights activist working in Chechnya, was abducted in the republic’s capital Grozny. Her body was later found in neighboring Ingushetia. Estemirova had been shot in the head and chest.

Natalia’s colleagues linked her murder to the sensitive investigations she was working on and suspected the Russian government’s involvement in her death. “Memorial”, a human rights NGO where she worked, named one person in particular: the head of the Chechen republic Ramzan Kadyrov, implicated in numerous human rights abuses, including torture and execution of gay Chechens. Kadyrov denied the allegations and sued the center and its chairman for libel.

Two years after her death, Estemirova’s sister Svetlana approached the European Court of Human Rights. Svetlana argued that Russian authorities were responsible for her sister’s death as they had failed to protect her, and that Chechen authorities — including Kadyrov — had personally threatened Natalia and that state officials were involved in her abduction.

Ten years later, on August 31st this year, the Court ruled that Russia has failed to properly investigate Estemirova’s killing but found no evidence that her death was a state-sponsored murder.

I spoke to Natalia’s daughter Lana, whom I have known for several years, about the disappointing decision and the bleak future of freedom of speech in Russia.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Coda Story: The judgment came in on Tuesday morning. You and many of your mother’s colleagues have been waiting for it for years. What were your first reactions, thoughts?

Lana Estemirova: It was all very sudden because it was processed for 10 years, and it’s quite normal for cases like this to be on hold for ages. It was just very nerve-racking, I hardly slept. I just had these recurring thoughts and it was very emotional, refreshing that page. I was so nervous I didn’t even understand it. I was with my husband, he was reading it with me and he said, “oh, they didn’t accept that the Russian authorities were involved in this murder”. I was just hit in the face. It was so painful, I burst into tears and I was crying non-stop for the next three hours. 

It was a two-part judgment. They did admit that my mother’s right to life was violated and they did admit that Russian authorities haven’t conducted a proper investigation and need to do so. This is absurd because the Russian side hasn’t provided enough evidence about the case, so I really struggled to understand when it’s so damning for the Russian side, how could the judges just make that decision when they didn’t even have enough evidence? 

This was the last chance for justice in a sense because we all know that while Putin is in power, it’s not likely that they’ll conduct a proper investigation. To see this judgment was truly shocking because I was associating ECHR with the side of righteousness. Several judgments ruled that the Russian state was responsible for massacring Chechens or kidnapping civilians during the [Chechen] war, and my mom actually helped to build those cases. She was the one interviewing the victims, collecting the evidence, negotiating. And just to see that in the end, she became one of those cases and she was failed like that, it’s just heartbreaking. 

Coda Story: What does this decision mean for Russia in the current political context?

I think it’s a very worrying development. We’re seeing a complete deterioration of human rights in Russia. We’re seeing a crackdown on all the independent media,  journalists have a duty to declare themselves as foreign agents, which essentially just shuts down freedom of the press entirely. We’re seeing so many murders of activists and journalists in Russia and politicians go unpunished. 

This decision is like a nail in the coffin, but not the final nail because there are plenty of nails in Russia. I think it’s very worrying because now whoever wants to say something damning to activists can just whip out this judgment and say: “Hey, this is your favorite ECHR that you’re always referring to, the Convention on Human Rights”. And of course, it’s just a huge blow. 

Coda Story: More generally, do you think other states and international institutions could do more to condemn what’s happening in Russia?

I mean, in short, I think, yes, they’re not doing enough. We’ve seen major red lines being crossed over the past decade by Russia. We’ve seen the Crimea, which we’ve seen MH 17 flight being brought down, major human rights violations, completely shocking. And at the same time, Russia hasn’t been frozen out. Russian oligarchs are still enjoying all the services that the West has to offer. Half of the football clubs in the UK are owned by oligarchs from the post-Soviet space. These are, in a way, also Western institutions. 

There are a lot of politicians who genuinely care about the abuse of human rights and want to make it better. But I would say that sometimes Western politicians whack their finger with one hand, and with another hand they sign backroom deals and treaties. 

I keep hearing from different activists and journalists that they just don’t think that anyone can help them from outside their country. And while it’s hard and almost impossible, we really need to rely on ourselves because no savior is going to come from outside. No institution, no army, is going to come from abroad to save you. And we just need to gather our courage and keep plodding on.

Coda Story: What would have changed had the ECHR decided otherwise?

I think more than anything, it would be a very important symbolic victory because, well, you know, monetary compensation is kind of meaningless. How do you put a value on a person’s life? Their value with this judgment was twenty thousand euros and you think, is this how much her life is worth? But it’s not really about the compensation. It’s about the symbolic victory. So many murders of activists, prominent activists go unpunished and those who ordered the murders are never found. I think it would mean a lot that at least someone got this justice.

Coda Story: Things have gotten progressively worse in Russia. 12 years after your mother’s murder, both Kadyrov and Putin are still in power and “Memorial”, where she worked is now a “foreign agent”. What have these years been like for you, witnessing it from the outside?

In 2010 I left Russia. The first few years after my mom’s murder, I was really focusing on healing and trying to just live my life. I was 15 when it happened. I moved to a foreign country where I barely knew anyone and made a conscious effort to just shut myself out of everything. I didn’t give any interviews, I was very protective of my relationship with my mother. Thankfully, my mother’s colleagues did everything in their power to fight for this case and to try and carry out their own separate investigation. 

As I was getting older, I started writing more about this case, speaking publicly. It’s very difficult when it’s so close to you, when you need to be an advocate, but you are also a daughter and you have your own pain that you’re carrying.

Coda Story: What are your next steps now? Do you think there is hope to bring those responsible for your mother’s death to justice?

First of all, we will gather with the lawyers and see what happens next. I believe that while Kadyrov is in power and therefore while Putin is in power, we won’t find the murderers, they won’t be brought to justice because people who are responsible are in a position of power. Until then I think it’s a combination of trying to do what we can and just having enough patience to wait for this regime to fall.

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