Estemirova posing at the Front Line Club in London in 2007. She was kidnapped in Grozny on Wednesday morning and found dead later in Ingushetia.
The horrific killing of Memorial’s representative to Chechnya sent shock waves through the human rights community, and President Dmitry Medvedev ordered an investigation.
The attack also may put international attention back on the North Caucasus, where violence has spiraled in recent weeks.
Attackers grabbed Estemirova as she left her Grozny home at around 8:30 a.m. Wednesday and forced her into a white Zhiguli, Memorial said.
“She could only shout that she was being kidnapped,” the human rights group said in a statement on its web site.
When Estemirova failed to appear at scheduled meetings, Memorial representatives went to her home and learned about the abduction from an eyewitness, Memorial said. She had several meetings planned for the day, including a trip to the Stavropol region with Chechen Interior Ministry officials.
Estemirova’s body was found at around 4:30 p.m. lying in grass about 100 meters from the Kavkaz federal highway near the village of Gazi-Yurt, north of Ingushetia’s main city of Nazran, the Investigative Committee said.
Estemirova had been shot repeatedly in the head, chest and abdomen, most likely with a 9 mm Makarov pistol, investigators said. Her purse was lying nearby, and it contained her passport and papers identifying her as a human rights activist.
Estemirova, a 50-year-old single mother, had frequently spoken out against violence and kidnappings in Chechnya. She had also worked as a freelance journalist and was awarded the first annual Anna Politkovskaya Award in 2007 for her work as a female human rights defender.
Reporters Without Borders urged the authorities to bring Estemirova’s killers to justice. “A human rights activist’s abduction in the heart of Grozny and ensuing murder at a time when Chechnya is supposedly safe again shows that, despite the optimistic claims, the issue of the Caucasus has not been resolved,” the media watchdog said in an e-mailed statement.
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 Ingushetia and Dagestan.
Estemirova helped Reporters Without Borders conduct a fact-finding visit to Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan in March. “The information and analyses she shared with Reporters Without Borders reinforced our conviction that the Caucasus is on the brink of chaos and that human rights activists like her are bravely filling the gap left by a dwindling independent press,” it said.
Medvedev’s spokeswoman Natalya Timakova said the president was outraged by Estemirova’s killing and had ordered Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin to investigate.
“Unfortunately, it is clear that this premeditated murder might be linked to Natalya Estemirova’s human rights work,” she said, Interfax reported. “So the punishment for the criminals should be that much harsher.”
The Chechen government saw the killing as an attempt to undermine stability in the republic. “She was well known to all of us, and it is outright tragic that this happened now, when the situation in Chechnya is stabilizing,” Timur Aliyev, an adviser to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, told The Moscow Times.
Human rights groups have accused Kadyrov of kidnappings, torture and murder to keep order in the republic. Kadyrov denies the charges.
Lev Ponomaryov, a prominent human rights activist, said he had no doubt that Estemirova’s death was linked to her human rights activities. “I knew her very well. She had received many threats,” Ponomaryov told Interfax.
Estemirova, who was born in the Saratov region, joined Memorial in 2000 after stints as a history teacher and journalist in Grozny. She was the recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, known as the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize, by Sweden’s parliament in 2004, and a medal from the European Parliament in 2005. She had worked closely with Politkovskaya, who was shot dead in her Moscow apartment building in 2006, and human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, who was killed in central Moscow in January.
Violence, meanwhile, has continued to grip Chechnya and surrounding republics this week, killing at least 14.
On Wednesday, gunmen killed an Ingush court marshal and a passenger in his car on the same highway were Estemirova’s body was found hours later.
In Chechnya, four Interior Ministry troops were killed and five were injured Tuesday in a gunbattle with rebels in the mountainous Vedeno district. A day earlier, a bomb attached to a police truck killed a policeman in Grozny.
In Dagestan, ambushes and gunbattles killed at least seven this week.
Last month, a suicide bomber badly injured Ingushetia’s president, and snipers killed Dagestan’s interior minister.
Analysts said the violence was worse than the usual summer peak when rebels can take shelter in mountain forests. Speculation has been rife that regional officials have been paying rebel leaders not to attack them.
Maxim Agarkov, an analyst with the SK-Strategia think tank, said a reduction in funds sent from Moscow to the North Caucasus was partly to blame.
Agarkov also said that mounting unrest in Chechnya might be linked to the lifting of the counterterrorism operation in the spring, which enabled authorities there to introduce a local customs levy.
“Federal bureaucrats do not like this at all because they fear losing revenues,” he said.