Chechen women grieving during the burial of Zarema Sadulayeva in her native village, Shalazhi, on Tuesday. She and her husband were abducted Monday.
Two activists from a Chechnya-based children’s charity were found shot dead in the trunk of their car early Tuesday, a day after a human rights group reported that they were kidnapped from their office in Grozny.
The killings, which come less than a month after the murder of prominent Chechen human rights campaigner Natalya Estemirova shocked the world, raise new questions about the republic’s ability to protect activists and rights workers.
Zarema Sadulayeva, head of a nongovernmental organization called Save the Generation, and her husband, Alik Dzhabrailov, were abducted from their office at about 2 p.m. Monday by unidentified gunmen dressed in camouflage, the Investigative Committee said in a statement. Dzhabrailov also worked for the group.
Their bodies were found riddled with bullets at 4 a.m. in the trunk of their car in the nearby village of Chernorechye.
“A group of men dressed like officers from the security forces entered the office and took Sadulayeva and Dzhabrailov into a jeep. It all looked very ordinary. The men even left a phone number to call in case of emergency, but it didn’t work later,” Alexander Cherkasov, from human rights group Memorial, told The Moscow Times. “They even returned to the office a while later to take the couple’s cell phones and car.”
Chechen police initially refused to take any action when Memorial reported the abduction, saying the couple got into the car on their own will, Cherkasov said. Interfax quoted a law enforcement source Monday evening as saying police were “disinclined to believe that a kidnapping had occurred.”
The car was found in a crowded area about a 15 to 20 minutes’ drive from the office, Cherkasov said.
The killing spurred a wave of indignation from human rights groups and statements from Russian and Chechen officials condemning the crime and promising to find the killers.
“This slaying has once again proved the government’s inability to guarantee the safety of its citizens,” the Moscow Helsinki Group, a rights organization, said in a statement.
President Dmitry Medvedev released a statement ordering the Prosecutor General’s Office, Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service to find the killers.
A criminal case has been opened, and a group of federal investigators flew to Grozny to help with the case, the Investigative Committee said. Alexander Bastrykin, the committee’s head, was in the North Caucasus on a working trip and was briefed on the initial results of the investigation, his web site said.
Said Tsarnayev / ReutersPeople praying during Zarema Sadulayeva’s funeral in Shalagi, 50 kilometers southwest of Grozny, on Tuesday.
Prosecutor General Yury Chaika has taken the investigation under his personal control, his office said Tuesday.
“I’m shocked. It’s a cynical, inhuman and demonstrative murder,” Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov said in a statement.
“I consider it a challenge to society, intended to intimidate the whole nation and every individual in Chechnya.”
He said the killings of human rights activists proved that rebels were adopting a new tactic to discredit regional leaders. Kadyrov said he considered it a “matter of honor” for him that perpetrators be found and punished, and he earlier said he would personally oversee the Estemirova investigation.
Estemirova, who worked for Memorial and had been extremely critical of Kadyrov, was snatched off a Grozny street by unidentified men and found dead hours later in neighboring Ingushetia on July 15. Memorial later suspended operations at its Grozny office over safety concerns.
Human rights groups including Memorial have blamed Kadyrov for the killing, a charge he denies.
Kadyrov, in turn, has not been shy about criticizing rights groups for what he calls unfair attacks on him. Over the weekend, he told a radio station that Estemirova did not have “honor, dignity or a conscience.”
Reporters Without Borders called on the international community Tuesday to support civil society in the Caucasus and blasted Kadyrov’s remarks about Estemirova, calling them “utterly intolerable and constitut[ing] an indirect threat to all human rights activists.”
Save the Generation opened in 2001 to help young people and their families traumatized by violence in Chechnya. From 2004 until 2008, the group worked with the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Thanks to the charity’s efforts, more than 100 children underwent successful surgeries, were able to get free prosthetic devices and received access to social benefits, UNICEF said Tuesday.
“I have no idea who needed to kill them,” Memorial’s Cherkasov said. “Estemirova’s death was politically related. But it’s unclear who would kill members of a humanitarian organization.”
“I’m inclined to think that it was an act of intimidation against all independent organizations sponsored from abroad, not just human rights groups,” Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya, who works in Memorial’s office in Ingushetia, told The Moscow Times.
“It wasn’t an opposition organization, but it wasn’t controlled by the government either. It was independent,” she said.
Kadyrov told reporters that the couple’s murder could have been linked to rebels, as Dzhabrailov had served four years in prison for fighting with rebels and was recently paroled.
“It could be a blood feud-related murder,” Kadyrov said.
But there was no reason to kill Sadulayeva, he said.
The killings do not look like a feud murder, however, which under local tradition would not involve women, Sokiryanskaya said.
They married several months ago, soon after Dzhabrailov’s release, she said.
The killings were not the first for Save the Generation.
In April 2005, Murad Muradov, then the group’s head, was detained by security forces in Grozny. His body was returned to his relatives with numerous injuries in February 2006, and prosecutors said at the time that there were no allegations against him, Sokiryanskaya said.
The Kremlin announced an end to counterterrorism operations in Chechnya earlier this year, but violence has continued to rattle the republic and has increased in neighboring Ingushetia and Dagestan.